WASHINGTON - The government is hiring so many new air-traffic controllers to replace departing veterans that it cannot efficiently train them, an inspector general reported yesterday.
The Transportation Department's inspector general said that the Federal Aviation Administration is so swamped with new hires that it has exceeded its own maximum trainee numbers at 22 percent of its 314 air-control facilities. The FAA uses a database replete with erroneous information to manage the training program and has failed to implement remedial steps that the agency itself promised in 2004, the IG report added.
In a written response, the FAA accepted most of the IG's recommendations. But the FAA rejected the idea of making public an accurate count each year of how many fully certified controllers and how many trainees work in each of its facilities.
Noting that the figures change frequently, the FAA said, "Publishing annual static snapshots of total trainees by facility will be of little meaningful use."
The FAA has known for decades that it would have to replace much of its workforce during a few years early in the 21st century because President Reagan had fired 10,438 controllers in 1981. After Reagan broke an earlier controllers union during that contract dispute, replacements were hired over a few ensuing years. The FAA began issuing plans for this hiring surge in 2004, and earlier this year said that it expects to hire 17,000 controllers through 2017.
But the FAA has consistently underestimated how many controllers would retire or quit since fall 2006, when the Bush administration declared an impasse in contract negotiations. The FAA imposed new work rules, a 30 percent cut in starting pay, a freeze on base pay of current controllers and elimination of their premium-pay opportunities. The IG's report said that the imposed contract cut top pay from $143,984 to $106,200 and starting pay from $44,800 to $37,800.
"This report is vindication," said Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "Three years ago we urged them not to impose what they did because it would exacerbate this problem they knew was coming. With work schedules being changed daily, vacations being canceled and more time required on work positions, our veteran members are saying, 'I'm out of here.' Under the old contract, far fewer controllers retired as soon as they were eligible."
Forrey said that the result has eroded safety margins and increased delays in the air-traffic system. The FAA denies that the system is unsafe.
New hires off the street or emerging from the FAA academy, and even veteran controllers transferring to a new facility, all must undergo on-the-job training to qualify to work each radar position at their new workplace. This can take up to three years before they are fully certified to work all stations.