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NYC airports among worst for controller shortage, union says

Travelers walk through Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport in the Queens borough of New York, US, on Wednesday, Nov 21, 2012.

[WASHINGTON] US air-traffic staffing is at a 27-year low that threatens to increase flight delays, particularly in the already congested New York region, the union representing controllers said.

A growing wave of retirements, budgetary uncertainty and bureaucratic failures at the Federal Aviation Administration have combined to create a shortage of fully trained controllers, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said Tuesday.

"The staffing crisis is a systemic problem and deteriorating daily," Trish Gilbert, the association's executive vice president, said in a briefing at its Washington headquarters.

The FAA's facility guiding aircraft into New York's three commercial airports has reached the lowest level of fully trained controllers in 25 years, said Dean Iacopelli, the union's vice president for the eastern region. New York, which already has some of the highest flight delays in the country, will get worse if staffing continues to deteriorate, the union said.

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The union's charges were leveled at a key time for the FAA, which faces an attempt by Republicans in Congress to split off its air-traffic organization into a non-profit corporation. Lawmakers and others have repeatedly leveled charges that the agency has been a poor manager.

"The FAA shares NATCA's frustration with air traffic controller staffing levels," the agency said in an e-mail.

Budget cuts and a temporary government shutdown closed the FAA's controller training academy for nine months, delaying training for several classes of controllers, but the agency is working to speed up its hiring, according to the e-mail. In its most recent report on controller staffing, the agency said it planned to hire more than 6,300 new air-traffic workers over the next five years to keep pace with expected attrition.

"The agency is planning additional job announcements in the future to recruit new controllers to meet ongoing staffing needs," it said.

Partially as a result of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration in 2013, the FAA hasn't met its hiring goals for five straight years, according to NATCA. The number of certified controllers is 10,859, the lowest it has been in 27 years, the union said. The total number of controllers, including trainees, is 13,906, down from 15,236 in 2011.

In addition to spurring flight delays, low staffing has led to a slowdown in the adoption of new technology and procedures designed to improve efficiency, the union said. The FAA is in the midst of a US$44 billion air-traffic upgrade known as NextGen that will replace radars with global-positioning flight tracking.

Because it can take years to fully train a controller, particularly at the nation's busiest facilities in places like Atlanta, Chicago and New York, the FAA needs to begin hiring as soon as possible, NATCA said. The agency also has to streamline policies allowing controllers to transfer from less busy airports regions with critical needs, it said.

"It's becoming too critical to wait for them to catch up," Ms Gilbert said.  While controllers in busy facilities are routinely working six-day weeks to keep up, falling controller numbers haven't led to a decrease in safety, the union said.

NATCA is asking Congress to hold a hearing on staffing, Gilbert said. Lawmakers must renew legislation setting broad policy goals for the FAA early next year.

Open criticism of the FAA by the union is unusual. NATCA's relationship with the agency has been strong since the FAA under President Barack Obama renegotiated its contract in 2009.

"It's just frustration," Iacopelli said of the union's decision to go public with its concerns. "It's not animosity."