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Large Number of Port Columbus Air Traffic Controllers Could Soon Retire

The Federal Aviation Administration announced it will keep three air traffic controllers on duty during early morning hours on weekends at Port Columbus. While that may seem like a positive move for workers and fliers, there are other looming problems. A new work contract set to be imposed by the FAA Sunday could cause mass retirements.

Until Tuesday, there were only going to be two air traffic controllers from midnight to 6 a.m. on weekends at Port Columbus. But according to the air traffic controllers' union, the FAA decided to maintain three workers. The decision comes just days after a crash in Kentucky. Columbus Local President of the National Air Traffic Controllers' Association, Steve Miller, said FAA officials told him the crash had nothing to do with the decision.

"I was told, no. I don't know if I necessarily believe that, but I was told, no, that it does not. That it was due to something that they should have been doing all along and now as of yesterday, oh, gee, yeah, we'll start doing that," Miller said.

But for Miller knowing exactly why the decision was made is the least of his worries. The FAA is introducing a new contract Sunday that could cause many Port Columbus air traffic controllers to retire.

Right now a new controller starts out making about $42,000 a year. And they can earn up to $91,000 a year. But the new contract reduces new-hire pay to $36,000 dollars, and freezes top pay at $63,000 dollars. In addition, some controllers work will be automated.

By law, air traffic controllers can not strike. But Miller said they do have another option.

"The only thing left to us then is, if we feel, you know, we can't live with the new imposed work rules is to retire or quit," Miller said.

Miller said with the new contract many workers are left not knowing whether to stay on or retire. He said morale is at an all-time low.

"I've been in the organization for 24 years and seven months come Friday, and I've never seen the morale this low. Not knowing when we're going to get any replacements for these people who are going to retire; we have certainty that we're losing three people in this next year because they've hit the age, 56, limit, and they have to go. And we don't know if we're getting anybody in to replace them. And then question becomes who's going to train those people," Miller said.

Miller said it takes up to three years for an air traffic controller to become completely certified to work. And he does not think the problem will be hiring new people, but keeping them long-term.

"When you first come into a job, especially if you like the job, we're willing to go for just about anything if it's at all feasible. But, then you have to live with that for 25 years. And they're topping pay is going to be very hard to keep a family going on and make this your only employment. So it's going to be the thing coming down do you want to have air traffic controllers who are not sure if they are in their day job of controlling or their night job saying do you want fries with that?, Miller said.

Twenty of the 45 air traffic controllers at Port Columbus are eligible for retirement. We made repeated calls to the FAA for comment, but the messages were not returned in time for broadcast.