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Blame the FAA for air-traffic controller shortage

With Thanksgiving, the busiest travel time of the year, behind us, there is a growing problem that could affect air-passenger safety — an impending shortage of air-traffic controllers.

As backdrop, Ronald Reagan fired nearly 12,000 air-traffic controllers in 1981, when these workers illegally went on strike and effectively shut down airports across the country. Today, because of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) mandatory retirement age of 56, a deluge of retirements are expected over the next few years. Without a solid plan to replace these controllers with equally competent hires, public safety is being put to the test, and consumers should expect increased delays and cancellations in the years to follow.

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According to a U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General Office report, more than 11,700 air-traffic controllers will retire by 2021. While the work-force attrition was certainly a predictable outcome and it was on the FAA's radar, it seems that the FAA failed to take the necessary steps to plan for the shortfall. The FAA's failure is highlighted by years of mismanagement, a proposal to dissolve its current air-traffic controller training program, and a decision to completely overhaul its hiring processes for new air traffic controllers.

Closer examination of FAA's practices reveals a startling series of management problems over the years.

Recent audits have been very critical of the FAA — particularly its poor management of the current air traffic controller training program, overspending and dropping productivity, and deficiencies involving air traffic controller fatigue, as well as delays in addressing and implementing suggestions by auditors. The problems paint a picture of incompetency, project mismanagement, a bureaucracy that has become too out of touch with its mission, or some combination.

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The FAA has also demonstrated deficiencies in planning. The issue of labor shortages did not just creep up; the FAA knew about it and needed to plan for it. Training air-traffic controllers is expensive and takes more than two years to get a candidate fully trained. As a result, alleviating a future shortage requires action now. Whereas audits have generally pointed the finger of blame at the FAA, the agency – in scapegoating fashion – recently decided to end its current air-traffic controller training contract. The timing could not come at a worse time, with shortages mounting. A better approach would be to make improvements to the current training program in order to get more eyes on the sky.

Further, the FAA has decided to stop selecting its training candidates from qualified flight schools or by offering training slots to military vets who have experience. Instead, the focus will be to take candidates from off the street, which will not improve the quality of the candidates, will increase training time and cost taxpayers more money. It's doubtful that reducing the prerequisites for air traffic controller jobs will be considered a flying success. But, there could be a hidden agenda here but, for whatever the reason, it has nothing to do with improving public safety.

The bottom line is that revamping the air-traffic controller training program could not have come at a worse time, as the FAA needs to bring more controllers quickly onboard. It is like an NFL team completely changing its playbook right before the playoffs – it's too late to practice and mistakes will happen. However, mistakes with flying safety are not a game. The resulting airport delays will cost American consumers billions of dollars of lost time, and the increase in flight cancellations will only raise consumer prices, not to mention the potential for jeopardizing public safety.

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Stretching air-traffic controllers too thin is a risk, particularly with the mental and physical stress of keeping aircraft from colliding into each other. So, absent proven performance in air-traffic control breakthroughs, the FAA will have to replace the retiring controllers – with properly trained candidates. It's a matter of public safety.

5. Cultural change

Commentary by Steve Pociask, president of the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization. Follow him on Twitter @consumerpal.