Report Finds Inexperience in Air Traffic Control

DOT finds 22 percent of air traffic control facilities exceed limit on trainees.

ByABC News
June 10, 2008, 1:07 PM

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.