Federal Aviation Administration documents made available Tuesday warn that a shortage of technicians who maintain air traffic control facilities and systems has become so severe that it could jeopardize the nation’s air system.
“Airway facilities staffing has diminished to a critical level,” according to the documents, which were prepared by the agency’s office of development and logistics for a recent briefing of top FAA officials. The papers were dated March 20.
The documents warn that budget reductions in fiscal 1986 and 1987 could seriously affect the FAA’s plans to modernize the nation’s air traffic system and could jeopardize “maintenance of the national airspace system.”
No Technicians Present
Continued maintenance of the air traffic system “at current mandated levels and quality will soon be impossible,” the documents said, noting that some facilities already operate late-night watches with no technicians present to handle equipment problems and breakdowns.
Such technicians are needed to maintain and service computers, radar and other equipment used by air traffic controllers to provide pilots the information they need to fly their planes and guide them into and out of the nation’s airports.
“Clearly, the airways’ technician work force situation is a real concern to us,” FAA spokesman Stephen D. Hayes said. However, although he acknowledged that the situation is serious, he maintained that “it is not a safety concern.”
Hayes said the FAA is exploring a number of options to deal with the manpower problem. “We may get to a point where there would be some impact on system efficiency, but not on safety,” he added.
However, the warnings in the documents seemed to reinforce the claims of the union representing technicians, the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, that a shortage of qualified technical specialists is beginning to affect the nation’s air safety.
Howard E. Johannssen, president of the union, the largest representing FAA employees, said the documents “identify the issues we’ve been talking about.”
He said 11,000 technicians served 18,000 air traffic facilities and systems in 1981, compared to 6,500 technicians at 22,000 facilities today.
The FAA documents said the technician staffing problem is most critical at major airport terminals and at the 23 regional air traffic control centers where controllers guide aircraft flying across the country.
FAA Hiring Plans
In recent months, the agency has announced plans to increase the number of air traffic controllers and safety inspectors, but little has been said about the technicians.
A hiring freeze imposed by FAA Administrator Donald D. Engen last Dec. 30 in anticipation of cuts mandated by the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law affected all agency personnel except air traffic controllers, safety inspectors and security specialists. The FAA’s fiscal 1986 budget was reduced by more than $110 million.
The FAA papers indicate that the shortage of technicians could be further affected by the fact that 50.1% of the technicians have 25 years of service and that 38% are eligible to retire in five years. The attrition problem, the FAA documents said, “creates both skill and geographical imbalances in the system nationwide.”
The FAA has maintained that new equipment that will be installed as part of its modernization plan will require less maintenance and fewer technicians.