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Yes, Virginia, There is an Air Traffic Controller Staffing Crisis - (12/21/2004)

CONTACT: Doug Church 202/220-9802, 301/346-8245 (cell)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Confirming what controllers have been saying for years, the Federal Aviation Administration today released their long-awaited report to Congress stating that there is a looming air traffic control staffing crisis. The fact is that in some cities, the shortage is already occurring. Consequently, if you are flying to or through one of these cities, there are already too few controllers watching the skies.

That’s why it was critical that the Congressionally-mandated FAA report not be a public relations document to make the public feel better, but, instead, be an honest and realistic account of both the current and future needs of the system. At first glance, it seems the FAA has tried to have it both ways.

“ This staffing plan is a Wal-Mart solution in a Tiffany’s box. The FAA has acknowledged that there is a problem, but solutions are not in the cards for the flying public. It’s gratifying that the FAA has joined us in stating that we need to hire thousands and thousands more controllers, but we remain concerned about the shortage that has already hit cities across the country. While drafting this long-awaited plan, the FAA lost over 500 controllers, but hired only 13. The FAA acknowledges that it takes three years to train a replacement, but the FAA’s report promises no substantial hiring for two years, meaning relief is over five years away. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today,” stated NATCA President John Carr.

“ Equally troubling is that the FAA seems to be making promises about training and staffing that simply won’t hold up under the microscope. For example, the FAA has been saying that it wants to provide more tower simulators but didn’t fight for funding in Congress to make this happen. Wishing and hoping are no substitutes for action.

“ The truth on staffing may not be pretty, but it is a reality that the FAA, the Bush Administration and Congress must face to ensure that we have enough trained eyes watching our skies. The flying public deserves more than page after page of promises that can’t be kept. They want to hear that the FAA is working with Congress to make sure that an adequate number of controllers are properly trained to ensure safety.

“ NATCA was not provided the opportunity to see the report before it was publicly released. However, given that controllers are on the front-lines each and every day, we know first-hand what the problem is and will be if action is not taken. While we welcome the plan, with all due respect, the time for planning and window dressing is long overdue.”

Carr added, “With this report the FAA is basically admitting that they were asleep at the wheel. They did not plan, they did not prepare, they did not budget, they did not anticipate, and now, with relief years away, they expect today’s flying public to put up with congestion, delays and a reduced margin of safety due to their incompetence.”

Carr noted that America’s air traffic controllers are highly trained, dedicated public servants whose one and only goal is protecting the safety of our skies. As public servants, controllers are accountable solely to the American people. And the American people need to know the facts:

An Aging Controller Workforce jeopardizes safety: The FAA stated in its Flight Plan that one of the main reasons that safety errors increase is the aging controller workforce.

Flight Delays are increasing at alarming rates: The Transportation Department’s Inspector General has admitted that flight delays are reaching record levels. There were 1.34 million arrival delays in the first ninth months of this year, with the average length of the delay reaching almost 52 minutes.

You can’t train controllers overnight: It takes up to five years to train a controller, and not everyone makes the cut. And controllers hired today will replace those retiring three to five years from now because it takes that long to fully certify them. There are currently not enough controllers in the pipeline to replace those leaving in the coming years.

Cutting corners on training cuts corners on safety: You can’t simply simulate on the job training. Just like you don’t want a pilot flying a plane who hasn’t been in an airborne cockpit – or a driver behind the wheel who hasn’t been tested on a road - you don’t want a controller landing a plane who hasn’t had on-the-job training. And it’s also tough to simulate training if the FAA fails to provide simulators at training sites.

The FAA has failed to address the EXISTING shortage: From October 2003 until September 2004, the FAA lost more than 500 controllers, but hired only 13.

The FAA has inflated its staffing numbers by hiring supervisors instead of controllers: The FAA is taking controllers to fill numerous vacant supervisor positions, leaving fewer controllers to work traffic and further reducing the margin of safety. Many large en route centers have lost more than a half dozen veteran controllers to supervisor positions just this year alone. Washington Center, for example, has seen 19 controllers in 2004 become supervisors. We need more eyes watching the skies, not watching controllers watching the skies.

While the FAA has offered some band-aid solutions, band-aids aren’t sufficient
when surgery is required Fortunately, real solutions are available that Congress and the FAA can put into action that will help address this crisis. Our policymakers must:

• Permit Transfers - Allow experienced controllers to transfer to higher-level facilities to make room for trainees at lower-volume facilities. Controllers transferring from other FAA facilities certify in half the time needed to certify trainees from other sources. By allowing seasoned controllers to move to facilities with identified vacancies - it makes room for trainees to receive on-the-job-training at lower-volume facilities.

• Provide Funding - Provide sufficient funding so new controllers may be brought into the system, allowing known vacancies to be filled while plans are developed to identify future vacancies.

• Increase Eligibility - Increase the length of time a graduate from one of the FAA identified College Initiative Training (CTI) schools can remain eligible for hire as a controller. Under the current CTI program, eligibility expires after two years

The consequences of inaction are too great. Below are examples of the controller staffing situation facing many of our nation’s air traffic control facilities:

• Chicago Tracon, authorized for 101 controllers, but only 66 are certified.

• Los Angeles Center, where 309 are authorized and only 219 certified controllers are on hand.

• Philadelphia Tower, where 109 controllers are authorized but only 88 are at the facility, and only 65 of these are fully certified.

“This report is a political wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Administration acknowledges the problem, and promises that the next Administration will fix it. With all due respect, the time to build the ark is before it starts raining. I feel raindrops right now, and it’s going to be raining on travelers for the next ten years,” Carr stated.

“The ball is in the FAA’s court. It must work with the White House and Congress and make staffing a priority. We have the safest and most efficient air traffic control system in the world. Why? Because of productive air traffic controllers whose only mission is to get passengers home safely. Controllers will do all we can to guide Santa’s sleigh this Christmas, but we’re all counting on the FAA to make sure that there are enough trained eyes watching the skies next Christmas and every day of the year,” Carr concluded.

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