America’s air traffic controllers handle the safety of 823 million air passengers yearly. This profession demands not only specific technical skills but also focus, concentration and emotional intelligence. Studies have long shown it is one of the most stressful modern professions. With safety stakes so high, it is critical the FAA attract and recruit only the best prepared and best suited candidates possible.
Donald Trump has floated several proposals aimed at the struggling air traffic control system, including privatization, which the House of Representatives and Senate have both rejected. His 2018 budget proposal seeks to cut corners even further.
Air traffic controllers are required by law to retire at age 56 while Social Security benefits are not payable before age 62. To address this income gap, air traffic controllers, along with other key service professions such as firefighters and police officers, have in their contract a special retirement provision covering the six years between the age at which they are forced to retire and the age at which Social Security becomes available to them. If a former controller continues to work in another capacity, those benefits are reduced or eliminated.
Trump proposes abolishing this program for air traffic controllers, beginning with those who retire in fiscal 2018, making an already challenging profession even less appealing. This proposal represents a miniscule fiscal savings in exchange for specific harm to an embattled profession.
This July, an airline disaster of unthinkable proportions was only narrowly averted at San Francisco International Airport. Reports indicate that a pilot waiting to take off from a departure runway alerted the lone air traffic controller in the tower that an Air Canada jet was preparing to land on a runway lined with waiting airplanes. The controller quickly ordered a go-around to the Air Canada pilot, and the passengers and crew of four airliners were saved from a collision that would certainly have cost hundreds of lives. Initial FAA investigation faults the pilot of the Air Canada jet for not using his computer guidance system, but the FAA also noted the presence of a single controller during a time when the tower should be staffed with an absolute minimum of two. With more eyes in the tower, this frightening scenario could have been avoided.
Last summer, NBC Bay Area News warned that these near-misses, and perhaps even actual collisions, will be more frequent. U.S. Department of Transportation statistics show the number of certified air traffic controllers safeguarding our nation’s skies is at a 27-year low, while passenger ridership is at an all-time high. This controller shortage extends beyond airport towers, impacting radar facilities that control high-altitude flights known as TRACONS. Air traffic control is a department in crisis.
The lack of controllers can be attributed to two main factors: The lingering effects of the 2013 Republican sequestration which delayed training and hiring new controllers for nearly two years and the mass retirement of controllers that is currently underway. In addition, the process of training and certifying a new controller can take up to three years, but at the end of this period, many new hires simply wash out because of the intellectual and emotional demands of the job.
We can’t afford to discourage any potential air traffic controllers by taking away a necessary protection to their retirement plans. With a job that already asks long hours, staggered schedules and the stress of expanding responsibilities, let’s at least alleviate controllers’ stress about their retirement future.
Deidre Harrison is a retired high school English teacher and Santa Rosa resident whose son, Nicholas Clyde, is an air traffic controller at Mineta San Jose International Airport.