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Thursday, March 8, 2007

The FAA's Trafficking in controllers

Facing an unprecedented future loss-rate of air traffic controller retirements and resignations, the FAA is fixating on a ten year "fix it" plan that will ensure that the National Airspace System will be adequately manned. The FAA's 314 facilities will be subject to an establishment variation manning system that will be tempered to accommodating each site's needs. An indepth explanation of that intent seems lacking. It might mean a new dynamic that would be better styled as a state of flux. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) was quick to query the basis for the plan. The FAA is not staffing to match traffic needs, but "simply staffing to budget," said air traffic controller union spokesman Doug Church.

The rolling 10 year plan will take up 1400 new hires in 2007, but will tentatively require a total of around 15,000 new controllers over the ten year period. The 2007 figure is a net increase of 189 controllers over 2006 hiring levels. In FY2006, the FAA hired 1,116 new controllers, increasing the total number of controllers on staff to 14,618. Because of a bitter contract dispute, many controllers accelerated their departures so the agency underestimated the number of controllers who'd be retiring last year.
Similar problems could arise if:

a. the planned automation (of implementing a Next Generation Air Transportation System that can meet the demands of commercial, business and general aviation in the 21st century) means that career ATCO's will perceive that they will have a limited professional life-span.

b. in the shorter term, that the FAA's needed use of flexibility will mean that controllers will be shuffled from one facility to the next (ATCO's work best when they remain, reside and work within a familiar ATC environment, amidst familiar faces).

Hiring at the right pace is crucial to the FAA's future. The FAA's Oklahoma City academy plans to lower the average training time from three years to two for controllers who work at airport towers and from five years to three for those assigned to the en route facilities. Marion C. Blakey, the FAA administrator, said in a statement. "It is critical that we staff facilities based on actual and forecasted traffic demands. We are confident that the new controller hires will be able to meet the needs of the future."

It is precisely what those needs will be under the Next Generation Air Transportation System that will remain the greatest intangible.
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