ANCHORAGE - A shortage of Alaska air traffic controllers threatens to jam up traffic in the nation's most heavily flown state, spokesmen for the controllers union said Tuesday.
Rick Thompson, regional vice president for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the Federal Aviation Administration has not taken adequate steps to prepare for an expected wave of retirements by controllers who replaced 12,000 striking workers fired by former President Reagan in 1981.
Safety will not be compromised if Alaska towers are not fully staffed, Thompson said. However, he said, flying hours could be curtailed if there are not enough controllers, resulting in delays for passengers and cargo.
Air carriers transport the equivalent of four times the state's population each year in Alaska, FAA Alaska Region administrator Patrick Poe said in June.
Thompson and other union representatives support an upcoming vote in the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee authorizing funding for the FAA and other transportation agencies. He said a bipartisan group of senators has written to the chairman requesting $14 million for the FAA to begin hiring controllers.
Nearly half of the country's air traffic controllers - 7,100 out of 15,136 - will be eligible to retire in the next nine years. That's more than three times the number who resigned in the past eight years.
Mike Fergus, FAA Northwest Mountain Region spokesman, said the agency and the union agree there's a problem, but not on its severity.
Historically, of the controllers eligible to retire after 20 years, 25 percent do so in their first year of eligibility, Fergus said. Another 25 percent do it in the next five to six years, and the rest do so sporadically.
FAA officials are considering raising air traffic controllers' mandatory retirement age from 56. Thompson said that's a stopgap.
The Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport's terminal radar approach control center, which lines up landings and takeoffs, has 32 authorized controller positions but only 28 filled, including a trainee who cannot work all positions alone and two do not do control work, said controller George Lloyd. Five of the 28 are eligible to retire this year and 12 can retire in the next three years, Lloyd said.
Anchorage's air route traffic control center, which contacts all aircraft flying into and out of Alaska, is authorized for 117 controllers. The facility has 112 in place, counting six trainees. Within three years, 27 percent will be eligible to retire.