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FAA plans to hire nine more controllers for LAX

March 08, 2007|Ashley Surdin | Times Staff Writer

The Federal Aviation Administration plans to hire nine more air traffic controllers at Los Angeles International Airport this year, part of an effort to address looming retirements in the nation's intricate aircraft-guiding systems, officials said Wednesday.

The agency wants to hire and train more than 15,000 controllers over the next decade throughout the nation's 300-plus facilities that guide or monitor air traffic.

"We need to start to build the next generation of the air traffic control system," Bill Withycombe, Western-Pacific regional administrator for the FAA, said at a news conference at the FAA's regional office in Hawthorne.

"On a national scale, we're on track," he said, but at LAX, "we're currently running low."

In fact, a spokesman for a union representing some Southern California controllers said the additional staff planned for LAX was not enough.

LAX has 38 air traffic controllers, in the low range of the FAA's staffing requirements. This year, four are expected to transfer or retire.

The nine new hires, therefore, would bring the staff at LAX to 43. That would be three short of what the FAA considers a "high" staffing range for the airport, which is overdue for radar updates and has a history of close calls on its busy, closely spaced runways.

In one recent near-collision on the ground, two planes came so close that the pilot of one of them -- who slammed on his brakes and came within 100 feet of a business jet -- could be heard hyperventilating on tapes of the cockpit conversation.

Nationally, the FAA employs more than 14,600 air traffic controllers, who are responsible for guiding about 50,000 aircraft each day. More than 70% of that workforce is eligible for retirement in the next decade, the FAA projects. This year, about 700 retirements are expected, with 350 already confirmed.

Last year, the FAA hired 1,116 new controllers; this year, the FAA expects to add close to 1,400.

The news of additional hires did not placate air traffic controller representatives, who for years have sparred with the FAA over staffing levels.

Last year, contract discussions between the air traffic controller unions and the FAA came to an impasse. The FAA imposed a new contract in September, after Congress decided not to intervene. Union members said the old contract should still stand.

"It's short of what the needs really are," said Tony Vella, president of a local of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. "They saw this coming far in advance, and they failed to take the necessary steps to hire air traffic controllers needed for the system."

Vella represents controllers at the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control in San Diego, which handles nearly 2.3 million aircraft operations a year. The system monitors air traffic for controllers at John Wayne, Los Angeles International, Long Beach, Burbank, Van Nuys and Ontario International airports and San Diego's Lindbergh Field.

The system has 188 certified controllers, plus about two dozen trainees, but should have 260, Vella said.

"That was under the old contract that's no longer in effect," Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the FAA, said in disputing Vella's assertion. The new plan calls for 186 to 228.

"The only valid staffing numbers are the ones in our new staffing plan," Gregor said.

The FAA's workforce plan is updated every year and is required by Congress to address how it would handle staffing needs brought about by retirements.

ashley.surdin@latimes.com

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