WASHINGTON – Far more veteran air traffic controllers than the government expected have retired since the Bush administration imposed a contract on their union on Labor Day 2006, new data show.
While veteran controllers bail out in unprecedented numbers and air travelers experience record delays, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued a series of all-is-well pronouncements about its work force.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, by contrast, has produced a stream of warnings about safety risks to the public from overworked controllers in major air control centers it says are undermanned.
Two things are certain: A veteran force of controllers, mostly hired in the early 1980s after President Reagan fired 11,000 members of a predecessor controllers union, is being replaced by lower-paid, less-experienced controllers, and that long-expected transformation is occurring faster than the government anticipated.
A total of 828 controllers retired in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, the FAA said late Friday. That’s 28.8 percent more than the 643 retirements the agency predicted at the beginning of fiscal 2007, though it upped its estimate twice during the year, to 700 and then 800.
In September 2006, the FAA ended an impasse in negotiations by imposing a contract with new work rules, including staffing cuts and a dress code, and a 30 percent cut in the pay of starting controllers. The agency tossed out staffing levels negotiated in the 1998 contract and targeted all 314 control facilities for staff cuts.
“The surge in retirements just shows the FAA’s imposed work rules and pay system have exacerbated an already critical staffing issue,” union president Patrick Forrey said.
The FAA views the retirements differently. The agency had long known fiscal 2007 would be the peak year for controllers hired in the early 1980s to become eligible for retirement, so it hired 1,815 controllers during the year and now employs 14,874, exceeding the year’s target, it said.