Thursday, May 18, 2006

Air traffic controllers retiring en masse

By the end of next year a quarter of the nation's air-traffic controllers will retire. Besides the loss of that much experience, there is concern that their replacements will not be ready.

Those in the present generation of controllers -- hired after President Reagan fired about 11,000 striking workers in 1981 -- are approaching their 50s. Ironically, the FAA counts almost 500 of the controllers fired in 1981 as possible replacements for the retiring controllers.

Controllers are eligible to retire at 50 or after serving 25 years. They face mandatory retirement at 56.

By the end of 2007, 3,769 of the country's 14,736 air traffic controllers will be eligible for retirement.

The FAA estimates that 7,540 controllers could retire by 2011. That's more than half the current work force. And the number could reach 8,549 by 2012. Additional controllers could be lost through death, illness, resignation and promotion.

I was only 14 in 1981, so I barely remember the effect of firing 11,000 controllers. But I seem to recall that the planes kept flying. If we can handle the loss of 11,000 controllers all at once, I would think we could handle this more gradual attrition. On the other hand, the skies are a lot busier these days, so there's less slack in the system.

The FAA says it's on top of things:

Jay Aul, the FAA's human resources manager for controller operations support, said the agency will have all the replacements it needs even considering the required three to five years of training.

"We have a pool of applicants we can draw on," Aul said. "There are 1,300 military controllers who want to come over, 800 to 900 people in our college training programs, 300 people we reached through our job fairs, and about 500 former PATCO controllers."

I would hope so, since anyone can see this one coming. Though it's pretty funny that they're considering hiring back some of the fired controllers.

In the end this may just be a tactic by the controller's union to stir up interest ahead of contract negotiations. But given that it takes up to five years to train a new controller, a miscalculation could cause problems for an extended time.

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