In a letter from National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) president Patrick Forrey to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, Forrey said, “On January 3rd, and continuing for the next several months, over 1,100 air traffic controllers, or nearly ten percent of the depleted veteran workforce, will likely retire, making the already dire ATC staffing situation even worse.”

The letter, dated December 26th, was sent to Peters and was released publicly Wednesday, January 2nd, said Doug Church, director of communications for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Equally distressing, said Forrey, is the fact that the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is unable to replace these experienced controllers.

Since the beginning of federal fiscal year 2007 (October 1st, 2006), the FAA claims to have brought in 1,800 new air traffic trainees, according to Forrey. At year’s end, only 40 of them had made it to certification, often at small-to-medium facilities with lower volumes of traffic, and worse still, “developmental controllers” with less than several months of experience are directly managing aircraft in some of our busiest airports, Forrey said.

“Last Wednesday in Chicago, we witnessed the alarming safety impact of severe staff shortages mixed with inexperienced controllers when a veteran controller had to intercede with a trainee to avert a mid-air collision,” said Forrey. “I won’t recount the growing list of similar events on runways and in the air that we have seen in the last several months.

“I did so with FAA acting administrator Bobby Sturgell in our emergency meeting last week when, on behalf of NATCA, we made a plea to FAA leadership that they recognize the safety problems we are experiencing. They did not.”

Forrey added, “We simply cannot safely handle the volume of air traffic that the FAA is currently demanding of us, let alone even attempt to do so with further staff losses in the weeks ahead.

“Whether we agree about the causes of the safety crisis or not, without immediate relief from terms and conditions of the FAA-imposed work rules, pay cuts and freezes, we feel that it is our obligation to the traveling public, and to the men and women on the brink of leaving federal service next week, to appeal directly to you.”

Forrey asked Peters to send an immediate message to the air traffic controller workforce “that you will entertain a new round of discussions on the controller contract.”

“Soon-to-retire controllers have told us that such negotiations might preclude their exodus,” said Forrey. “If you are willing to do so, we stand ready to work with you to find solutions to the staffing crisis. If no such avenue is open, then we urge you to consider immediate flight restrictions at our most short-staffed facilities.

“Secretary Peters, this is not simply a partisan or labor-management issue, nor do we need to relive the past. We now face a national crisis in air transportation that demands national leadership. Together, you and President Bush tried to exhibit that leadership on air congestion. We now need you to show that same determination on air safety.”

On Wednesday, December 19th, Mike Foote, local union president of NATCA’s LAX Tower, briefed the Los Angeles City Council Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee, and said that staffing levels and inexperienced controllers are the biggest safety concern at LAX.

“Controllers have been retiring just as soon as they can, and new-hires are often straight off the street with no experience at all,” Foote said. “The problem with close calls at LAX is that we are only the tip of the iceberg.

“Every day you hear about the latest close call somewhere else in the nation. We cannot continue to roll the dice and expect that everything will just continue to work out,” Foote said.