Fiscal Squeeze Hits Air Controllers
March 13, 2013
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  • By Kathryn A. Wolfe


    The Federal Aviation Administration has imposed a hiring freeze to help blunt the sequester’s impact, but that threatens to disrupt the pipeline of new air traffic controllers needed to replace the thousands of workers eligible for retirement.


    That’s no small problem, considering the sheer number of controllers who are eligible to retire right now — more than 3,000 people out of the 15,000-odd workforce could tender their retirement papers at any time.


    Further complicating matters, it can take years to get a new controller fully trained, and the significant washout rate — the FAA calculates it at nearly 7 percent — means that even if people walk into the door for the job, they may not be staying.


    All that means that any lengthy disruption to new controller hires could throw off the agency’s structured attempts to deal with a retirement bubble that has plagued the agency for years.


    The hiring freeze is being put into place as a way for the FAA to help manage the cuts it has to make as a result of the sequester. The agency has warned that the next steps will include furloughs, which will spread the pain for airlines and travelers.


    “We have instituted a hiring freeze and have begun to cut contracts, travel and other items,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said during a March 6 speech. “But to reach the large figure we need to cut, we have little choice but to make up the rest through furloughing employees. This is not something that we take lightly.”


    An FAA official confirmed that the hiring freeze is agency-wide, including the air traffic control workforce.


    Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the House Transportation aviation subcommittee, said America is a safe place to fly because of “well-trained air traffic controllers.” Considering that a third of the FAA’s workforce will be eligible for retirement in 2014, “a new pipeline of people is critical.”


    “A possible hiring freeze of new air traffic controllers is another example of the slow-rolling devastating impacts of sequestration,” he told POLITICO. “We may not feel it today, but we will feel it.”


    The current wave of retirements is almost exclusively due to the results of the air traffic controller strike of the early 1980s. President Ronald Reagan declared the strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization union illegal and fired nearly all of the 13,000-strong workforce. The subsequent staffing-up happened largely en masse — almost 9,000 replacements were hired in 1982 and 1983 — and many of those people are now coming up for retirement.


    In 2002, the Government Accountability Office estimated that about 5,000 controllers would be eligible to leave over a five-year period. Additionally it found that “the potential for retirement among frontline supervisors and controllers at some of FAA’s busiest facilities is high.”


    The National Air Traffic Controllers Association says about 12,700 fully certified controllers are in the workforce now, with about 2,000 in training. Of that figure, 3,100 are eligible to retire, with more coming up behind them.


    “Really quite a few are eligible,” said Trish Gilbert, executive vice president at NATCA.


    According to the Transportation Department’s inspector general, between fiscal year 2008 and fiscal 2010, the national average for controller attrition was 24 percent of the workforce. At facilities designated as critical, the attrition rate was 40 percent. Typically, these facilities also require the longest and most intense training.


    “With so many veteran controllers leaving, FAA faces the risk of not having enough certified professional controllers to operate its busiest and most complex air traffic control facilities,” reads the IG report, issued last year.


    And beyond the obvious — a hiring freeze means people aren’t being hired — Gilbert said NATCA is worried that people who are eligible to retire may leave sooner than they might otherwise. That’s a twofold worry: One, people might just decide to retire because of the continuing budgetary gyrations related to the sequester and other political footballs. And two, they may want to leave because of the details of whatever Congress comes up with to replace the sequester.


    If the eventual deal ends up being something that materially changes controllers’ work rules and benefits, “then our concern is those great numbers that are eligible to retire would go ahead and leave,” Gilbert said.


    She said it’s also possible that the FAA may need to shut down the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City as a result of the cost savings the sequester requires. If that ends up happening, then the point-of-entry training spot for new air traffic controllers will be shuttered, at least temporarily.

    The academy amounts to about three months of training at which trainees’ aptitude for the job is evaluated. All potential air traffic controllers must attend the academy. After that, trainees are assigned to various facilities for classroom and hands-on training.


    “In very small facilities it’s maybe a year to 18 months, but larger facilities can take two, three, four years to certify, and that’s if they’re successful,” Gilbert said.


    “That would put us in a situation that would become strained again, especially with the Academy possibly being closed and a hiring freeze being in place,” Gilbert said.


    She said if the hiring freeze and possible academy closure were to last just a short time, the impact would be minimal. But if it stretches into three months or longer, along with an unknown amount of time to “spool up” again, the workforce pipeline would be harmed, she said.


    “How long would the pipeline be shut off? Are there other opportunities out there for hiring [such as the military]? … All of it is a big concern to us, because it does take a little bit of time — you know, years, not months — to get a controller fully trained,” Gilbert said.


    The FAA did not immediately answer questions about whether the sequester will affect the academy.


    Robert Poole, founder of the Reason Foundation, said instead of imposing a hiring freeze, the FAA in principle could limit the damage by ending overnight shifts at 100 so-called zombie towers, which Poole said don’t meet the FAA’s minimum traffic standards for staffing overnight operations. He said the agency would also reduce controller staffing “in places like Pittsburgh and St. Louis — and several others — where former airline hub operations have been removed but, I’m told, controller staffing has not been reduced in proportion.”