Most of the nation’s air traffic controllers charged with making the friendly skies safe for millions of airline passengers won’t be in their jobs in the next few years.
A generation of rookies hired in the early 1980s, after President Reagan fired more than 10,000 controllers for going on strike, is now approaching the mandatory retirement age of 56.
By next year alone, about 7,000 controllers—nearly half of the workforce—will be retiring from the Federal Aviation Administration, according to a report by the General Accounting Office in 2002. Thousands more will reach retirement age within about five years.
The anticipated mass exodus of experienced workers may not bode well for the safety of private and commercial air traffic. Replacing veteran controllers with a workforce of younger and less-skilled people could potentially lead to more operational errors, according to Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).
He says the controller involved in the US Airways flight that crash-landed in New York’s Hudson River last Thursday had about 10 years of experience “and did a fantastic job.” The jetliner hit a flock of birds, taking out both engines, moments after takeoff.
“Situations like a bird strike and two engines going out—if you’ve never experienced that or had exposure to that, there are all kinds of things that could go wrong, from landing issues to pitfalls of giving clearances,” Forrey says. “Everybody works together hand in hand. One mistake could screw everything up.”
About one-third of today’s air traffic controllers have less than five years’ experience, Forrey says, a figure that “grows daily and could weaken the safety net.”
Other aviation experts don’t agree. Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, says there’s no evidence that the safety of air travel is compromised by hiring and training younger controllers. Nor is she aware of marked increases in operational errors when the young, new workforce was hired in the early ’80s to replace the striking air traffic controllers.
To prepare for the wave of looming retirements, Brown says, about 4,000 controllers were hired in the last two years (average age: 27), and a total of 17,000 will be brought on over the next decade.
She says the FAA has also issued 162 waivers that allow controllers to work past the mandatory retirement age of 56—the age that lawmakers have determined as close to the upper limit of controllers’ ability to make instant life-or-death decisions when directing some 200,000 daily flights. The waivers, which must be renewed each year, are offered to workers who perform extremely well in the job and are deemed to be physically fit.
NATCA isn’t challenging the mandatory retirement age, and Forrey admittedly calls the job “a younger person’s game” because of its multifaceted responsibilities, its enormous stresses and its reliance on a controller’s quick reactions. “As you get older, you slow down a bit at reacting,” he says. “But what you do find is that experience takes over. You can move as much or more traffic because you know what to expect and how to do it.”
Like it or not, the FAA’s Paul Takemoto says, the new crop of recruits is much more adept than their predecessors at learning the ropes.
“They’re bright and motivated,” he says. “They adapt to the [training] simulators like nothing because they’ve been raised on video games. The training requires decisive minds, making decisions quickly and acting on them. They pick it up so much more rapidly than my generation, and I’m 51.”
Air traffic controller Barrett Byrnes, 56, doesn’t quite see it that way. He says that half of the controllers he worked with during the last few years at New York’s hectic John F. Kennedy Airport were trainees, a troublesome prospect for the flying public.
“Our traffic at JFK had gone through the roof,” says Byrnes, who worked as a controller for 35 years. In 2001, they were dealing with 275,000 operations; now, it’s more than 400,000.