WASHINGTON - The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday it would hire 12,500 new air traffic controllers over the next decade to offset a wave of looming retirements.
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said 435 controllers will be added next year, 1,249 the following year and varying amounts in subsequent years through 2014. When hiring is completed, the FAA will have 16,500 controllers, about 1,500 more than now.
John Carr, president of the air traffic controllers' union, said the hiring timetable is too long.
"There is an immediate problem with air traffic controller staffing and the FAA is promising a solution several years down the road," he said in an interview before Blakey's news conference announcing the plan.
Del Meadows, FAA air traffic hub manager for airports in Nevada and surrounding desert areas, said the hiring plan submitted Tuesday to Congress streamlines controller training and staffing.
"A big part of this plan is to have the right people in the right place," Meadows said at the Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control facility, or TRACON, at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.
Meadows said staffing was being reviewed for towers and TRACON facilities he oversees in and around Las Vegas and Reno, the Grand Canyon and Laughlin/Bullhead City in Arizona, and the High Desert Edwards Air Force Base and Mojave Airport in California.
Adding an eight-hour aptitude screening test for prospective air controllers could help cut the training time from five years to three years and increase the graduation rate from 57 percent to 97 percent, he said.
Safety will not be sacrificed, Meadows said, because standards for certification will remain the same.
He said the use of simulators also could speed the training period.
Money also is an issue. Much of the FAA's revenue comes from a passenger ticket tax pegged at 7.5 percent of fares. Cheaper tickets offered by discount airlines have caused the FAA's dedicated revenues to fall 8 percent in the last four years.
The cost of hiring and training the workers will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Despite the federal government's fiscal woes, Blakey said "we do expect that kind of funding will be there from Congress."
Carr said he expects the FAA will have to slow airport infrastructure improvements and postpone purchases of new technology to help pay for the new hires.
The FAA has estimated that nearly half of its 15,000 controllers will retire in the next nine years.
The timing of the departures can be traced to 1981, when President Reagan fired 12,000 controllers who went on strike and hired replacements.