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Controllers Say Delays Will Likely Worsen, Beginning with the Holiday Travel Season, Due to Understaffing Crisis - (11/5/2007)

WASHINGTON – As the government releases September flight delay statistics, air traffic controllers today are looking ahead and warning that the upcoming holiday travel season is likely to be plagued by delay problems because there will be 7.5 percent fewer fully trained controllers working than last year. Additionally, imposed work rules by the Federal Aviation Administration are forcing an average of three veteran controllers a day – with a minimum of 60 years of combined experience – to leave the workforce. 

Unless Congress acts quickly to send NATCA and the FAA back to the table to finish work on a new collective bargaining agreement, this will be the second straight holiday travel season that controllers will be suffering under imposed work rules that have worsened an already critical staffing shortage nationwide. More than 1,500 experienced controllers and trainees left the workforce in fiscal year 2007. Of the 856 who retired, 404 did so in their first year of eligibility, doubling the previous two years’ total as a percentage of those eligible to retire and smashing the FAA projection of 150. 

Controllers today are working their 429th day under the FAA’s imposed work rules and those getting close to their 25th anniversary on the job or 50th birthday, with 20 years on the job, are literally counting the hours until they too can retire and leave what one controller now describes as the “world’s greatest job” but the “world’s worst employer.” There are 3,107 veteran controllers who have either reached retirement eligibility or will do so before October 2008. NATCA President Patrick Forrey says that without a new contract, most of them will leave, an outcome he believes will worsen delays both this holiday season and in the 2008 summer travel season. 

Some aviation officials outside NATCA have drawn a clear link between falling controller staffing levels and rising delays. Last week, former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall testified to the House Science Committee that, “we are currently in the middle of an air traffic controller staffing crisis. Fueled in part by the lack of a contract, this crisis has industry-wide consequences including: more and longer flight delays, combined radar and tower control positions, and an increased use of mandatory overtime resulting in an exhausted, stressed out, and burned out workforce.” 

Hall added that total controller attrition in fiscal year 2007 “nearly” wiped out “any net gains in total staffing made by the FAA’s hiring efforts.” In fact, of the FAA’s new hires, 669 came directly off the street, with no prior military or collegiate air traffic control job or education experience. Forrey said that only increases the need for the FAA to give controllers a contract they can ratify, to keep veterans on the job longer to hold the system together because trainees and newly certified controllers will be incapable of approaching the ability of veteran controllers to keep the system moving at peak efficiency for several years. 

“We continue to impress upon Congress the urgency in passing legislation that resolves our contract issues with the FAA before the end of this calendar year,” said Forrey, who noted that the House in September passed an FAA reauthorization bill that would send NATCA and the FAA back to contract negotiations, but the Senate has not yet acted on its FAA reauthorization bill. “Without a resolution to our issues, an already critical staffing shortage will become an emergency staffing shortage, increasing delays and impacting the safety of the National Airspace System.” 

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