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Tue, May 06, 2003

What's the Deal on ATC Retirement?

Follow-Up: To Retire, or Not?

When we started this news story by printing a press release from NATCA, we got a response from the FAA, which we also reported. As we closed that article, we said, "Stay tuned -- this won't end here." We received the following correspondence in that regard:

In your article, "More Info on 'Chicago Unsafe' Story", there was a point made by [FAA spokesman] Mr. Molinaro about controller retirement that was incorrect. [Mr. Molinaro had admitted he didn't have the figures in front of him, and told us he thought controllers had to retire at "age 60 or 62" --ed.]

I am a recently-retired air traffic controller (July 2001) with experience in both Center and tower. I was also member of NATCA from its inception.

Air traffic controllers are REQUIRED to retire from active air traffic control duty at age 56. The early retirement eligibility enables a controller to retire at age 50, as long as they have at least 20 years of ATC work, or at any age with 25 years of controlling traffic. [The controller may work past this age if they are "off the boards", i.e., in a staff job. This does happen in a few cases. There were also a few controllers, definitely all pre-strike (August 1981) who were not subject to the mandatory retirement age, exempt from the rule due to the fact that they were hired prior to its implementation.]

I would estimate that 90% of my peers planned to retire as soon as possible. A few others planned to work until their kids got through college. Mr. Molinaro may wish to consider that this is a different generation than the one Reagan fired in 1981. We are baby boomers and beyond. The FAA does not have new statistics to plan by. --Julie Richardson

The FAA Did a Double-Check, and Confirmed Our Reader's Facts

The FAA's Tony Molinaro checked his figures and confirmed that Julie's mandatory retirement age (56) was, "correct -- under federal law, a controller cannot direct aircraft after reaching his or her 56th birthday, and most do retire by then."

He said there was a little more to it, though. "However, they are eligible for retirement after 25 years' service. On average, by age 50, they reach that 25 years of service. So you can say that many that are age 50 are eligible to retire."

"However," he continued, "even though they are eligible, our history shows that most do not retire as soon as they are eligible. That's mainly because there are economic incentives to stay on to age 56. Their pension is based on the highest three years of their salary, so that, if they do stay on to 56, their pension will be higher. That's what we've been seeing, regarding eligibility and actual retirement."

NATCA's Been Looking at This for a Long Time

NATCA's Doug Church says that Julie's '90%' figure "sounds higher than even I would have guessed; but it doesn't seem too far out of line." NATCA doesn't have survey numbers on planned retirements; they monitor eligible retirements. A 1999 NATCA survey, Church said, projected a retirement peak in 2007, when 8.4% of the entire workforce would retire. The GAO did a study, that we reported on last June, on just that subject. It's referenced below.

FMI: www.gao.gov/new.items/d02591.pdf

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