June 10, 2008 -- Flying into Las Vegas? You might be surprised to find out that half of the air traffic controllers working there are still in training.
Inexperienced air traffic controllers are a growing problem as more controllers retire and the Federal Aviation Administration scrambles to hire and train new ones, according to a report released today by the Department of the Transportation Inspector-General.
Today's report found that of nearly 15,000 controllers, just over 3,500 are in some stage of training and handling aircraft, meaning that nearly a quarter of controllers have recently started their careers. It takes three years to fully train an air traffic controller, and the FAA expects to replace nearly its entire workforce over the course of the next decade.
Rep. Jerry F. Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure panel's subcommittee on aviation, said Tuesday that the trend is "a major problem," adding that, "The FAA is doing very little to try and retain the most experienced controllers."
"It is a frightening thought to think that we are going to take these inexperienced people, put them out in the field, put the lives of tens of thousands of people in their hands every day," Costello said. Costello's panel will examine the issue tomorrow at a hearing on Capitol Hill.
But others said Tuesday that the FAA has prepared for those challenges.
"We feel very confident in the safety of the system," said Jim Washington, vice president for acquisition and business service for the Air Traffic Organization. Washington said they have added training simulators and doubled the number of contract instructors to keep up with the training.
"We aren't saying there aren't staffing challenges," said FAA spokesperson Diane Spitaliere. "We knew this was going to happen (the retirements) and we are prepared for it."
Still, today's report finds that the FAA's hiring process "is now outpacing the capabilities of many air traffic facilities to efficiently process and train new hires." It also concludes that there's such a backlog of trainees at some locations that the new hires sit around for months before they can truly begin their critical training.
In Miami, for example, 34 percent of the workforce is in training, and some new hires have had to cool their heels as long as nine months. In Oakland, 38 percent of air traffic controllers are fresh on the job.
Although the FAA caps the number of controllers who can be in training at a given site to 35 percent, 22 percent of the country's facilities do not adhere to that limit, the report said. And the IG has questioned whether the limit is too high to begin with.
"When you have that high of a ratio of trainees to instructors it's very difficult to get training done on a consistent basis," said Pat Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controller's Association.
The report comes as the FAA is being hit by a wave of retirements, as controllers hired after the PATCO strike in the early '80s are now eligible to stop working. The news also comes in the middle of an ongoing battle between controllers and the FAA over staffing and the controller contract. Forrey said already this year, 1,000 air traffic controllers have stopped working, compared to the 1,600 that left during all of last year.
"As opposed to trying to reach an agreement to try and retain the more experienced controllers, they're trying to send as many people through the academy as they can," Costello said.
The IG report does not address the question of whether the current controller situation constitutes a safety problem.
The FAA has said safety is not being compromised. Costello, however, said he's concerned.
"It is jeopardizing safety and it is a major concern to me," he said. "It's a major concern to pilots, the airlines are concerned, everyone in the system recognizes it's a major problem. But the FAA is not willing to recognize it."
"The problem of not having enough controllers to open the positions when you need to open them means one of two things," Forrey said. "You're going to compromise safety or you're going to have to slow the system down."