Can the Skies Be Safe Again?

Air traffic controllers today declared what they called a staffing emergency in major traffic hubs across the country — Atlanta, Chicago, New York and southern California.

Controllers said that means these airports do not have enough controllers on the ground to safely handle the amount of air traffic in the air and at major airports. And for the first time, the Federal Aviation Administration admits it is considering ways to try to entice veteran controllers to stay on the job longer.

The National Air Traffic Controller's Association says the work force dropped 10 percent last year, and losses are on a record pace this fiscal year. Experienced controllers are retiring in droves, and the ones remaining are stretched too thin and working too many hours, according to the union, which says that close calls in the skies and on runways are increasing.

Earlier this year, congressional investigators pointed to air traffic controller fatigue as a growing problem that contributed to "high risk of a catastrophic runway collision."

Controllers have a high stakes job with lots of pressure. Every day, they guide thousands of planes through the nation's busiest airspace.

"I'm saying that, at any given time, at any given day, at any given hour, there could be an accident, there could be a serious fatal mistake by one of these controllers that are fatigued, overworked, and have low experience," NATCA president Pat Forrey said.

At JFK International Airport in New York, there are 22 fully qualified controllers, down from 37 in just 2004, according to the NATCA. In Southern California, there are 159 fully trained controllers, down from 261 in 2004, the union says. The FAA disputes NATCA's numbers for Southern California, saying there are 172 fully trained controllers there, down from 235 in 2004.

And the FAA denies that the system is in any way unsafe.

"To suggest the system is unsafe is absurd," said Hank Krakowski, chief operation officer of the FAA's Air Traffic Control Operation. "I can assure you that I have no hesitation to get on an airplane, fly out of any airport, put my family on any plane at any airport."

"We cannot see any correlation in the data we have ... that suggests that safety is being compromised by fatigue or staffing issues — we just don't see it in the data," Krakowski said.

The FAA is racing to hire more controllers. The problem, however, is that it takes three to five years to fully train controllers, and the retirements mean that decades of know-how are being lost. According to the FAA, by 2010, 40 percent of the controller work force will have less than five years of experience.

"We are taking people and trying to move them up much faster than we used to, and that's a cause for concern right now," said Bob Richards, who worked 22 years in the tower at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, and is the author of "Secrets from the Tower."

And for passengers — all this could also add to delays.

"If we are short [on] controllers, what will ultimately happen is, we'll have to start putting restrictions on traffic, and see increased delays," M.I.T. aviation expert and aeronautics professor John Hansman said.