Pressed by Congress to plan better for retirements and maintain safe skies, the FAA announced yesterday a strategy to swap out most of the nation's air-traffic controller work force over the next 10 years.
The Federal Aviation Administration's plan to fill 12,500 jobs at radar screens across the country is intended to offset the retirement of more than 11,000 veteran controllers who were hired to replace striking controllers fired by President Ronald Reagan two decades ago.
FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey's decision to abandon traditional hiring practices - which were geared mainly at only meeting attrition instead of building a strong bench for the future - was generally welcomed by aviation experts and lawmakers.
The FAA said it would have about 16,200 controllers when the hiring is completed in 2014, up from about 14,800 today.
But challenges abound because the FAA must handle an increasing number of flights as it deals with the huge retirement bubble in the controller ranks. Blakey's boss, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, has set a goal of tripling aviation capacity over the next 15 to 20 years.
Some experts said the hiring wave should have started much earlier to replace the 73 percent of FAA controllers who will retire by 2014.
"There is a staffing crisis looming and only time will tell if the FAA solution works," said Stuart Matthews, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, an independent aviation safety research organization. "You can blame the FAA, but you also can blame [elected officials] who chose not to fund the FAA properly."
Blakey said she could not estimate the cost of hiring the new controllers, although significant savings could result. Current starting salary for a controller is about $45,000 annually depending on location, while the average controller salary and benefits total $158,000, according to the FAA.
FAA officials hope to compensate for the brain drain created by the retiring controllers - and reduce a 40 percent rate of trainees washing out - by using more high-technology training simulators. The objective is to compress controller training to two to three years instead of the three to five years it now takes on average.
To help mitigate the impact of 11,000 retirements nationwide, the FAA said it will grant waivers in the age-56 mandatory retirement rule. The waivers will permit controllers who qualify as "exceptional" to work until they are age 61. But only 10 percent to 15 percent of controllers are expected to meet the rigid requirements, FAA officials said.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.