December 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio December 1999 Current Issue
December 1999 On TravelPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

On Travel

By Jerome Greer Chandler


Will retirements from the tower lead to more slowdowns in flight operations?

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the annual number of flights in the United States will soar from 32.6 million in 1998 to 40.6 million in 2010. This raises a sobering consideration: Will there be enough controllers to handle the workload?

A survey conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based National Air Traffic Controllers Association found the association's current members are about to start retiring in droves. "If there aren't enough controllers to work the airplanes, we will have to slow traffic down," says survey author Ruth Marlin. "This at a time when frequent flyers already are complaining about delays." Marlin, a NATCA liaison to the FAA and a licensed controller, predicts retirement will "dramatically increase until 2007, when it peaks at 8.4 percent of the work force, or 1,260 controllers." By 2010, she says, cumulative retirements will exceed 50 percent of the work force.

Why the crunch? Flyers traveling since the early 1980s might remember the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. When PATCO went on strike in 1981, President Reagan fired the bulk of the nation's air traffic controllers, claiming their job action was illegal. In the past 20 years, the system slowly has rebuilt itself to where, according to the FAA, there are 15,093 controllers overseeing the nation's airways.

The problem is most of those people were hired during the immediate post-PATCO period, and now they're getting ready to hang it up. "The vast majority will retire in a similarly short period," says Marlin. The profession is about to experience the aftershock of the PATCO fiasco.

The FAA begs to differ. "There's a difference between controllers eligible to retire and those who actually retire," says spokesperson William Shumann. "We don't see a crisis."

NATCA does, but it says the crisis will affect efficiency and service, not safety. "Air traffic controllers will do what is necessary to maintain safety," even if it means slowing down an already sluggish system, Marlin contends.

Hasn't the FAA taken into account the baby boom-like consequences of the retirement of post-PATCO hires? NATCA thinks not. A 1997 General Accounting Office report said the FAA's projected retirement rates were based on the average number of retirements for the previous three years and the projected number for the next three. Marlin calls that short-sighted. The GAO also questioned why the FAA failed to maintain records to see if those projections were valid. This methodology led to the assumption that because attrition rates were relatively constant, hiring rates would remain relatively constant.

Shumann says, "We plan to hire based on our historical experience. We don't go out and hire a greatly increased number of controllers in one year and fan them out across the country."

NATCA maintains there simply are not enough "full performance-level" controllers who can work unsupervised to bridge the impending gap. The FAA counters that it plans to use compensation to keep experienced controllers working longer. Retirement pay is based on a person's final three years of service, so "there's a financial incentive for an individual to stay working as long as he can," says Shumann.

But that incentive is diluted by controllers' working conditions, NATCA hints. In the survey, "many [controllers] indicated a plan to retire as soon as eligible because of poor labor-management relations," says Marlin. She says controllers have communicated their concerns directly to FAA administrator Jane Garvey.

Marlin adds, "I did this survey to give them hard information that says, 'Let's take care of it now.'"

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