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Concern raised over NY air controller shortage

Federal legislators from New York want to know what the U.S. Department of Transportation plans to do about an apparent shortage of air traffic controllers and the potential for a wave of retirements at New York's Terminal Radar Approach Control center in Westbury.

Following the lead of Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola), all 31 members of the state's congressional delegation signed a Jan. 28 letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood expressing concern that a "serious staffing shortage" and retirements at New York TRACON could compromise aviation safety in some of the world's busiest and most complex airspace.

"We're asking Secretary LaHood what the plan is for safety reasons," McCarthy said in a telephone interview.

The letter notes that 30 TRACON controllers are eligible to retire immediately, and 60 more within five years.

According to the lawmakers' letter, there are 157 certified controllers at TRACON in Westbury, which manages flights into and out of Kennedy, LaGuardia, Long Island MacArthur and Newark Liberty airports. It also covers several smaller airports, such as Republic in Farmingdale and Teterboro in New Jersey.

Not at full staffing level

The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized between 205 and 270 controllers to work there since 1998, the lawmakers said.

"As one of the busiest, most complex and critical facilities in the world . . . the New York TRACON must be sufficiently staffed to keep our nation's air travelers safe and the region's airspace running efficiently," the letter to LaHood said.

The FAA monitors staffing at TRACON to make certain safety is not compromised, said Arlene Salac, an FAA spokeswoman for New York and the Northeast region.

"Current staffing levels at the New York TRACON ensure safe air traffic operations in the nation's busiest airspace," Salac said.

FAA, an agency under the authority of the Department of Transportation, has plans to hire 12,000 controllers in the next 10 years, according to information posted on the FAA's Web site. After the 1981 air traffic controllers strike, President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 controllers. Many of the controllers hired as replacements are now eligible for retirement.

Finding controllers to work in New York can be a special problem for the government. With the area's high cost of living and complex airspace, New York isn't a first choice for many veteran controllers at facilities elsewhere, said both McCarthy and Ray Maldonaldo, legislative representative with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

$100G bonus not working

Incentives such as offering $100,000 cash bonuses to experienced controllers to move to New York haven't resulted in full staffing at TRACON and haven't been effective, McCarthy said.

The lawmakers said there have been only two trainees certified as professional controllers at TRACON since September 2006.

The FAA standards for certification are appropriately high, Salac said.

"Any controller new to the facility must complete a series of rigorous certifications in order to operate in that environment," she said.

Maldonaldo, who is a controller in Westbury, said trainees without previous air-traffic-control experience do not have "great track records" of becoming certified controllers.

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