JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The FAA has about 70 air traffic controllers directing flights at the Jacksonville International Airport, but some of them will soon be forced to retire, and with no money to replace them, travelers could experience increased inconveniences in coming years.
To learn more, Action News visited the Air Traffic Control training center at Florida State College of Jacksonville. We met student Eric Giguere, who told us he saw opportunity within the industry two years ago.
"The first thing I heard was the need for it, how they were going to be hiring thousands of people and that's why I jumped into it."
The FSCJ program was established a few years ago, after the FAA projected the need for more controllers beginning in August of this year. Depite the need, the FAA probably won't be hiring any students anytime soon, allowing them to begin training in the minimum three-to-five year FAA apprenticeship that is required before taking control.
"Right now, we're feeling the effects of sequestration," said Program Director Sam Fischer. "And it's causing a greater gap between those controllers that are retiring and the controllers that are coming in to replace them."
Fischer says the problem started 31 years ago, when more than 11,000 air traffic controllers were fired by then-President Ronald Reagan for going on strike. Over the next year, the FAA hired approximately 9,000 new controllers, all under the age of 30.
In August of this year, those controllers began aging out of the system, forced to retire at age 56. The FAA's workforce plan written in 2012, states that it will phase-in 6,200 new controllers, like FSCJ students, overt the next four years, but in March came a hiring freeze.
"If they have a severe enough shortage then what you will see is delays," said Fischer.
Controllers are already challenged with long, demanding shifts, and Fischer said fewer of them and more work is too much of safety risk.
"The FAA is not going to let the traveling public be unsafe. We're going to keep airplanes apart, but the controllers may get overloaded, so the way to deal with that is slow airplanes down."
That means travelers will likely deal with long delays and cancellations over the next few years, even though future controllers, like Giguere, are eager to begin work.
"It's very frustrating. We already know the air space is saturated. We just need people in the industry."
Earlier this year 47,000 FAA employees, including air traffic controllers, were furloughed due to sequestration, but after a week of coast-to-coast delays, Congress canceled them.
A spokesman for The National Air Traffic Controllers Association sent Action News this email statement:
"NATCA remains very concerned about the continuing negative effects that sequestration is having on the aviation system, from the hiring freeze and staffing to NextGen and modernization. But air traffic controllers are continuing to do great work to ensure the U.S. has the world's safest and most efficient system. We urge lawmakers in Congress to find a solution to prevent more negative effects, including another round of furloughs of FAA employees."
This week, the Department of Transportations Office of the Inspector General reported that FAA also needs to improve guidelines to prevent fatigue. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association says the FAA is trying, but more effort is needed.