FAA faces shortage of air traffic controllers because of retirements

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Despite a five-year hiring surge, the Federal Aviation Administration is at risk of not having enough senior air traffic controllers for its busiest and most critical facilities, where they are needed to run operations and train less-experienced controllers, according to the agency's independent inspector general.

Nearly one-third of the senior controllers at the nation's most critical facilities are eligible for retirement, according to a report by the FAA's office of inspector general. At a Dallas-Ft. Worth FAA facility, 65% of the controllers are eligible for retirement, it says.

Meanwhile, trainees are quitting jobs at high rates at those same demanding, high-volume facilities, according to the report. Between fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2010, critical facilities lost 40% of their trainees to attrition, well above the national average of 24%, the report says.

The problems now are a legacy of the 1981 air traffic controller strike. That year, President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 controllers after they refused to return to work, and the FAA hired thousands of predominantly young controllers to replace them.

In recent years, those controllers have become eligible for retirement, forcing the FAA to ramp up its hiring and training programs.

The inspector general's report looks at 21 facilities deemed "critical" to the nation because of the high volume of air traffic they control. The list includes several control towers at the nation's busiest airports -- Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, Chicago O'Hare and the New York area's Kennedy, Newark and LaGuardia fields -- as well as several regional and high-altitude facilities.

The FAA said Monday it has "progressively improved" hiring, training and certification of new controllers and has increased its ranks of senior controllers, known as "certified professional controllers.

"More than 5,000 Certified Professional Controllers have been produced over the past five years as part of a hiring and training plan designed to ensure safe and efficient operations," the agency said in a statement. "The FAA continues to meet overall goals for hiring, training time to certification and number of certified controllers."

The FAA told the inspector general's office it recognizes the "failure rate" of new controllers is unacceptably high at some facilities and is addressing the issue.

The office said that while the FAA is getting better at allocating staffing, "ot still has not provided the training support these complex facilities need to slow attrition and ensure the success of new hires."

It gave five recommendations, but said the FAA has satisfied three of them and is taking steps to address the other two.