TOM BEARDEN: Air traffic controllers at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, oversee an average of 700 flights everyday.
SPOKESMAN: Zero-five-five-seven came on thirty nine-three. Thank you.
SPOKESMAN: Thirty nine-three, roger.
TOM BEARDEN: It's a high pressure job. Patrick Thawley has been at it for 33 years.
PATRICK THAWLEY: The fact is any second of any day that you're signed on to that position, anything can happen and sometimes does -- totally out of control, out of your control, not your fault, but it can happen, and you're on the firing line.
TOM BEARDEN: It's been a long and satisfying career, but now Thawley is considering retirement.
PATRICK THAWLEY: We've got so much time doing this it's kind of second nature. But on the other hand, do you lose a step? Yeah, who would say they hadn't when you get to be in your mid- 50's, you know?
TOM BEARDEN: Just steps away from Thawley, another veteran air traffic controller is also looking toward retirement, Richard Cox.
RICHARD COX: It's a young man's game. We're not fooling anybody.
SPOKESMAN: Traffic, 40-47 is with you for one-nine.
TOM BEARDEN: The problem is that Cox and Thawley are part of a massive wave of air traffic controllers set to retire in the next few years. According to a recent study by the General Accounting Office, 70 percent of the nation's controllers and supervisors will be eligible to retire in September of 2011. They will have served 25 years or reached age 50 with 20 years of service.
SPOKESMAN: Once you're past the northbound 727, take it back over to right to Bavo-22, please.
TOM BEARDEN: Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues for the GAO, headed up the study.
GERALD DILLINGHAM: The first thing we concluded was that there is a significant number of controllers that are potential retirees within the next decade. Secondly, the FAA doesn't seem to be prepared for this wave of retirements. And third, it may have a tremendous effect on the air traffic control system.
TOM BEARDEN: The reason so many controllers are set to retire is the 1981 air traffic controllers strike. President Ronald Reagan decided to fire more than 10,000 controllers who walked off the job.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I must tell those who fail to report for duty this morning, they are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.
TOM BEARDEN: Now, the thousands of air traffic controllers hired to replace those strikers are approaching the end of their careers all at the same time. Ned Reese is the manager of the air traffic division of the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, where new hires are put through 15 week training program before they enter years of on the job training.
NED REESE: The job action in 1981 resulted in us essentially losing approximately three generations of air traffic controllers. And over the next seven to eight years as we set about to rebuild the system in the field and restaff the facilities that had lost so many controllers, we essentially replaced those three generations with one generation of controllers.
TOM BEARDEN: Bill Peacock is the FAA's director of air traffic.
BILL PEACOCK: Will it be a problem for us? It will be a challenge. We're going to have to recruit, which we have a plan to do. We're going to have to train, which we have a plan to do. We'll have to move some controllers from lower-activity airports to the higher, more complex facilities. And so we have a plan in place to do that.
SPOKESMAN: Even if this aircraft reports this number one in sight...
TOM BEARDEN: At the FAA Academy, instructors are gearing up for the likely onslaught of new trainees.
SPOKESMAN: Test to zero-four-whiskey
SPOKESMAN: Roger, cleared to land.
TOM BEARDEN: Tower simulators provide trainees with a series of scenarios that become more and more difficult as the student progresses.
NED REESE: It's a challenge. Everyday it's a challenge, and everyday it's not the same, it's different. It's like coming to work and being presented with a new puzzle.
TOM BEARDEN: Before students reach these sophisticated Imax theater simulators, they are taught about air traffic in the most basic terms, using a table top runway and toy airplane models.
NED REESE: It's linear, in that by definition the controller literally has their hands on the aircraft they're separating.
TOM BEARDEN: To Reese, the handing off of aircraft from one controller to the next is like a high altitude ballet.
NED REESE: Air traffic control is like a choreographed dance. You have to perform. It's like the dance. Once it starts, you have to follow it through. You have to make decisions, you have to make sure they're the right decisions, you have to assure separation and that safety is paramount.
SPOKESMAN: Heavy on departure, turn around to one-eight-five.
TOM BEARDEN: The FAA acknowledges that any plan to build up the number of trainees will need congressional approval, and such requests are in competition with other FAA programs. GAO's Dillingham says the FAA's plan to replace outgoing controllers isn't aggressive enough.
GERALD DILLINGHAM: They need to develop a strategic plan that would include not only their tradition of one-for-one, but going all the way down to the facility level and talking to those people in the FAA regions and getting an idea of what they are going to need and when they are going to need it.
TOM BEARDEN: But the FAA disagrees. They say the agency's plan to hire replacements will work.
BILL PEACOCK: You can't train a controller in a day. So we need to hire more over the next few years than we need for that given year, so three, four, five years from now they are at that certified professional controller level when the other controllers actually retire.
TOM BEARDEN: The Air Traffic Controller's union worries that neither Congress or the FAA will move quickly enough, that seasoned controllers will be forced to work mandatory overtime, as they did after the 1981 strike. Ruth Marlin is the executive Vice President of National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
RUTH MARLIN: If we rely on mandatory overtime to solve the problem, which is what they did after the strike, it makes our problem worse and it makes our problem worse faster. Fully a third of the controllers said that they would retire earlier if they were forced to work mandatory overtime. It's different. You're a different person as a 50- or 55-year-old than you are when you're young. So it accelerates our problem.
TOM BEARDEN: This month's mid- air collision of a DHL cargo plane and a Russian passenger flight focused attention on allegedly reduced numbers of air traffic controllers across Europe. Both the controllers union and the FAA say even if a shortage develops here, safety will not be compromised. But the union says delays will be significant.
RUTH MARLIN: We will maintain the safety of the system. The only way to do that, if you don't have sufficient controllers, is to slow the traffic down. Security is a perfect example. When we wanted to move the security lines faster, we put up more equipment and more personnel. If you want to work more airplanes, you need more equipment and more personnel.
If you are going to take a third of the workforce out, there's going to be traffic that's affected. There's no way we can operate at the level we're used to with a third less controllers. It just doesn't work.
TOM BEARDEN: In the meantime, a lot of controllers like Patrick Thawley and Richard Cox are clearly worried about whether there will be enough people in the pipeline to prevent their having to work mandatory overtime. They say they'll keep a close eye on the situation, because what happens in the near future will have a major effect on when they decide to finally hang up their headsets for good.