FAA manages turnover in air traffic controllers

Retired air traffic controller Mark Pawlowski demonstrates the LAX tower simulator.
Retired air traffic controller Mark Pawlowski demonstrates the LAX tower simulator.
Brian Watt/KPCC

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If the job market looks grim, the picture is different for air traffic controllers. Many active ones are approaching the mandatory retirement age of 56. The Federal Aviation Administration hired them to replace those who President Ronald Reagan fired for going out on strike in the early 1980s.

Retired air traffic controller Mark Pawlowski is demonstrating a new simulator that helps to train controllers at Los Angeles International Airport and 11 other airports across the country.

“American 1524 Runway 2-5 right position and hold," he speaks calmly and confidently.

The simulator’s wall-sized screens show airplanes taxiing, taking off and landing in a computer generated-replica of the LAX airfield. It can create at least 200 traffic scenarios, show the airfied by night or during a rainstorm. Tony DiBernardo, manager of tower control support at LAX, says the simulator is important.

"At LAX historically, controllers did not come to the facility unless they had four years experience at midlevel facilities," he says. "Lately, we have brought new students in: veterans from the military, students from the college training initiative, public hires."

The new simulators can speed up the training time for new controllers. The FAA’s on a mission to hire and train almost 17,000 new air traffic controllers in the next decade. The agency’s about a quarter of the way to that goal. DiBernardo started as a controller during the Reagan era, then moved into management.

"The pay is great. You don’t need a four-year degree to do the job, and so no student loans to pay off," DiBernardo says, "and within five years at a facility such as LAX, you’re making over $100,000 a year."

Those benefits are on the radar screens of the 300 air traffic control students at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut. Robert Rogus runs the aeronautics department there. He wants to make sure his students are ready for a rigorous screening process.

"FAA’s goal here is not necessarily that 100 percent of students are going to become air traffic controllers," says Rogus. "They want to pick out the best of the best."

Ask him and his students what makes a good air traffic controller, and here’s how they respond: a love of aviation, a lot of self-confidence, and the ability to manage stress. Student Trisha Cummings says a controller must calculate quickly and prioritize under pressure.

"Basically, you’re a control freak," says Cummings. "I am in my real life a control freak, and I want to apply that into my job too."

Cummings already has an offer from a control facility in her home state of Minnesota. She’s lucky because she’s 30 years old, and the FAA doesn’t hire new controllers after their 31st birthday.

Twenty-six-year-old Brad Jackman began to study air traffic control after he left a job as a historian. He loved history, but the job wasn't wasn’t as exciting and as challenging as he'd hoped.

"You know, they talk about the stress of air traffic control – not being able to pay your bills is stressful," says Jackman. "I’m looking for a job that pays well, that has a lot of security, good retirement benefits, better for a family man."

Jackman is trying to make himself more appealing to the FAA by taking air traffic control courses at Mount San Antonio College. Turns out, he’ll have some competition from within the federal agency. Since the FAA began ramping up controller hiring, the economy has soured, so a lot of the veteran controllers the agency had expected to retire are in a holding pattern.