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What can be done to alleviate shortage of air traffic controllers?

The labor union representing American air traffic controllers warns air traffic control facilities are understaffed, but they say there’s a solution. 

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A Southwest airlines arrives to land at the San Diego International Airport in San Diego, California, April 22, 2013. The air traffic controllers’ union says the Federal Aviation Administration hasn't been hiring nearly enough people to replace retiring workers.

Mike Blake/Reuters/File

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America’s busiest airports are experiencing staffing shortages among fully qualified air traffic controllers, a crisis that demands "urgent attention," a government watchdog told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Matthew Hampton, a Department of Transportation assistant inspector general, told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's aviation subcommittee that the number of certified controllers are "below the minimum staffing requirements" the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has set for the facilities.

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The situation is worst in thirteen of the nation's busiest air traffic control facilities including New York, Dallas, Denver, and Chicago, according to Hampton.

Hampton attributed the shortages to a combination of lengthy training requirements, which mean a large share of controllers are still being trained and not yet competent to work on their own, and the number of experienced controllers reaching the eligible age for retirement.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association labor union has been sounding the alarm that shortages were coming for several years. The calls reached a new level of urgency in October when the union called for a congressional hearing, citing a 10 percent decline since 2011. As of August, the union said, there were fewer than 10,900 certified staffers at the 316 air traffic control centers in the US, the lowest in 27 years.

Tuesday, union president Paul Rinaldi presented the subcommittee with a series of recommendations to alleviate the shortage of qualified controllers monitoring US skies.

First and foremost, recommended that the FAA post an "open and continuous vacancy for the experienced air traffic controllers."

The association is also calling upon the agency to streamline its hiring process, by “easing the bottlenecks and bureaucratic delays in Human Resources, security, and medical.”

Thirdly, the union advised a less bureaucratic and more expeditious transfer policy for current FAA controllers, “one that takes into account the needs of the entire NAS as a whole, not 315 policies, one for each individual facility.”

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The union noted, “this transfer policy would also encourage experienced controllers at lower level facilities to voluntarily move up, at their own expense, to busier, more complex facilities.”

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

[Editor's note: The original version misspelled the name of NATCA'S Paul Rinaldi.]