Air Traffic Control System on the Verge of Collapse?

Looking to make a quick $100,000?

The Federal Aviation Administration is offering higher incentive bonuses to attract veteran controllers to move to facilities in Westbury, N.Y.; Aspen, Colo.; Nantucket, Mass.; Anchorage and Fairbanks in Alaska, among other locales.

How many jobs need to be filled? "Vacancies: Many," according to employment notices posted by the FAA.

Although the FAA said this week that it is offering higher incentives due to the high cost of living in these areas, others said the hefty bonuses, of differing amounts, are due to critical staffing shortages in the nation's air traffic control towers.

The FAA is scurrying to retain seasoned employees and hire and train new controllers as those who started working after the air traffic controllers strike in the early 1980s approach retirement. The FAA expects to replace nearly its entire workforce over the course of the next decade.

But the National Air Traffic Controllers Association insists that the turnover means too many inexperienced employees will be directing traffic, perhaps dangerously, across the skies. The union said the FAA job openings illustrate just how dire the situation is to appeal to those with more experience. Controllers also are locked in a fierce contract dispute with the FAA, and they see these new incentives as yet another example of an air traffic control system on the verge of collapse.

"It's a sign of desperation that staffing is so bad at these facilities that the FAA has to offer such an outrageously high sum of money instead of negotiating a reasonable and logical solution to the mess it has created," said Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controller's Association in a statement on Wednesday.

According to the FAA, the agency has offered incentives for transfers to a total of 25 air traffic control facilities around the country since January. It has increased those bonuses or added facilities to its list on four occasions since the winter to appeal to potential hires.

Take New York as an example. According to the FAA, in January, the agency was offering air traffic controllers $27,000 for relocation, as well as a bonus up to $25,000 for committing to three years of work. The perks have gotten far better. Now, if you apply by July 8 to work at the high-stress approach control facility and get hired, you'll still receive $27,000 to transfer there from another facility, but if you also agree to commit to four years, you'll receive up to $75,000 over four years as an incentive bonus.

According to the FAA job posting, the salary for air traffic controller specialists in the New York area who are responsible for ensuring "the safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic" ranges from $98,814 to $137,732 per year.

The NATCA union said the New York facility has lost 13 percent of its certified controllers in the past two years and has not brought on any certified controllers since September 2006.

Passengers, too, could feel the effects of a shortage of air traffic controllers. Fewer people in control towers could mean controllers will have to slow down traffic, which could lead to more delays.

In Reno, Nevada, a shortage of air traffic controllers has sparked particular concern this week. NATCA Reno facility representative Rich Ferris said in a Tuesday statement, "The FAA has left us in a position where we cannot provide the level of service that Reno needs."

With one of the facility's veteran controllers retiring tomorrow, 11 fully certified controllers will continue to work there, as well as eight trainees and three supervisors. In ideal circumstances, the facility would have a staff of 23 to 28 people.

A health emergency on Monday also illuminated the problem when one of the fully certified controllers suffered a debilitating medical problem while working alone on radar, or handling airborne traffic around Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Feeling ill, the controller called up to the tower and someone came down to help him. Another tower controller took over the radar position from the tower itself.

Ian Gregor, FAA communications manager for the Western-Pacific region, said it was standard to have only one controller in the radar room at that time because "we staff to traffic." He said there were only a handful of planes the controller was working.

Though Gregor said it's tight in terms of staff, he added that "we're still running a very safe and efficient operation there and there have been no incidents or delays related to staffing."

The FAA has been discussing closing the radar room in the middle of the night, during which time a facility in Oakland, Calif., will handle Reno's traffic. Gregor said Thursday the FAA has not yet made that decision.

A report released earlier this month from the Department of the Transportation Inspector-General found that nearly a quarter of that nation's 15,000 controllers have recently started their careers and are still in some stage of their three-year training period. The report also found that more than 20 percent of facilities don't adhere to the FAA's caps that limit the number of controllers who can be in training at any given site.