TAMPA — Veteran air traffic controllers Steve and Laura Buchkovich say goodbye to Tampa International Airport today and take their skills to Dubai.
Adventure awaits them, along with cushier benefits.
But for passengers who pass through TIA, the couple's departure symbolizes an unsettling trend:
Tampa International's air control work force — once one of the nation's most experienced — is rapidly becoming one of the greenest.
Veteran controllers are leaving. Beginners, fresh off training, are managing more and more runways, landings and skies above us.
As the experience level drops, pressure increases on remaining veterans to work overtime, fill vacant shifts, train newcomers and backstop each other.
"Morale is at the lowest point I have seen in my 31-year career,'' says Steve Buchkovich, 51. "Something bad is going to happen. It's just a matter of time.''
"It's one of the key reasons we are leaving,'' says Laura, 53. "I'm having a hard time sleeping at night.''
Work force turnover is not unique to Tampa International. Airports all over America are losing experienced hands because so many controllers are approaching retirement.
But TIA's transition is particularly daunting.
Tampa was always a plum assignment. Openings were filled by seasoned controllers from other airports. TIA enjoyed a highly senior work force but now is paying the price: Every veteran on the staff is eligible to retire within the next six years.
Moreover, today's replacements are not old hands from other airports. A new pay scale has shut that pipeline down.
Now TIA's hires come from schools and military control towers that lack radar. Sophisticated training simulators expose them to digital challenges, but hands-on training often starts from scratch.
"When we came in, we went into low-level facilities, starter facilities where you could learn the basics and build up your knowledge,'' says Laura Buchkovich. "They are throwing these kids in these busy facilities with no knowledge. Some don't know a Cessna from a Cherokee.''
Managers at the Federal Aviation Administration, which employees traffic controllers, say passengers need not worry.
Technology in both the planes and control towers has improved since the Buchkoviches broke in, as have training techniques.
Since the overhaul began two years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board has not attributed a single major crash to controller error.
"Unquestionably, the FAA provides the safest air traffic system in the world,'' says FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. "We are hiring and training replacements to ensure a safe operation at Tampa International Airport.''
Claims and counterclaims about air safety are hard to sort out.
Twenty months ago, the Bush administration broke off contract negotiations with the controllers' union, froze pay, reduced the salary scale and toughened work rules.
Since then, veterans are retiring faster than the FAA expected. People are bitter and rhetoric can be hot.
Whatever the safety risk, staffing numbers make one thing clear about Tampa International: A new, inexperienced generation of controllers is coming, and coming soon.
Already, 26 of TIA's 69 controllers are trainees, up from nine a year ago. Three-fifths of the airport's 43 veterans could retire tomorrow.
How it started
President Ronald Reagan didn't flinch in 1981 when the nation's air traffic controllers went on strike for higher wages and a 32-hour work week.
He fired them.
Positions were filled with supervisors, military controllers and en masse new hires. When need be, traffic was slowed down.
Union leaders predicted catastrophe, but within 10 years or so, the government had restocked the work force with veteran controllers without a single major crash.
Now those Reagan-era replacements are approaching retirement, and airports face a new restocking, this time under more complex skies.
Controllers can retire at age 50, or anytime with 25 years on the job. Because the work requires steady nerves and quick reflexes, retirement is almost always mandatory at 56.
The FAA predicts that many controllers will ease the transition to the next generation by working past 50.
But that prospect took a hit in 2006, when the Bush administration declared an impasse while negotiating a new contract with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Pay was frozen. Cost-of-living allowances were dropped for veterans. A lower salary scale was imposed for new hires.
With no labor contract, the FAA also created new national work rules. No more trips to TIA's employee cafeteria during 15-minute breaks because it was off the air traffic premises. No more jeans.
"It was not unusual for controllers, particularly in Florida, to come to work in very casual attire,'' Bergen says, "which is very inappropriate for the vast majority of workplaces.''
Union leaders say management cracked down because they didn't want the new wave of controllers coming in with a strong union and high wages.
Working under the old pay scale, veteran TIA controllers can earn about $140,000 in base pay, and collect $180,000 with overtime, Sunday shifts and night differentials. Minimum base pay is about $90,000.
Under the new scale, fully certified controllers earn $60,000 to $100,000 in base pay.
That lower wage scale also applies to controllers who transfer between airports. That means a veteran from a small airport like Fort Myers, still working under the old scale, probably would face a pay cut to come to Tampa under the new scale. And with labor shortages cropping up everywhere, Fort Myers managers might prevent their veterans from transferring anyway.
As a result, Tampa, Chicago, Atlanta and other complex airports are now filling their holes with rookies.
Most of TIA's 26 trainees arrived within the past year. Some are still in classrooms. Meanwhile, the veteran work force has dropped from about 70 two years ago to 43 today. The FAA estimates that two dozen or so additional controllers will leave in the next three years.
Evaluating the experience level of TIA's work force depends on whom you count.
Ten supervisors monitor operations and fill in for controllers in a pinch.
A "fully certified'' controller has learned all the basic positions — three in the tower and eight in the radar room. That can easily take three years of hands-on training.
But newcomers might need only one year to learn just the tower positions — faster if they previously worked in military towers. Then they can fill those shifts.
Full radar certification, which is more difficult, can take two years, but individual positions can be learned in three or four months.
Certification, however, does not mean a controller is fully up to speed, veterans say.
"I am three times the controller I was when I checked out,'' says local union leader Mark Kerr. "You can never see every event in training. It's like being a quarterback. After a couple of years the game slows down.''
Laura Buchkovich says she recently worked the tower with two trainees who had completed simulator and hands-on training and were approved to work solo.
But congestion and fog rattled them, she says.
"They didn't know what to do. I'm having to keep an eye on everybody up there, including working ground control myself,'' she says. "They had never experienced it before. That's when it gets scary. I called down and said I need somebody up here to help me.''
Errors and incidents
One way the FAA measures safety is "operational errors,'' where controllers allow planes to get too close together.
In the first year of the pay freeze, when the buildup in trainees took off, these errors increased nationally from 1,271 to 1,331. Comparisons are difficult this year because the FAA has changed its standards, now calling some of the lesser errors "proximity events.''
Last month, Kerr, the local union chief, announced that TIA's operational errors had doubled from the same period last year, from three to six.
While that's true, the numbers are too small to draw significant conclusions. Miami and Orlando airports, which face similar training challenges, showed no such rise.
Some incidents don't qualify as operational errors, but are nonetheless unnerving.
One veteran recently retired after two tower incidents on one shift, Kerr says.
He was working that night as "cab coordinator,'' often a senior person who communicates with the radar room and other airports but also keeps an eye on the other three tower positions.
The other controllers that night were trainees recently certified to work the tower.
At one point, the controller who was managing landings stood by while a Southwest pilot decided to abort a landing, fly over the airport at about 2,300 feet and try again, Kerr says.
Such "go-arounds'' are common, but planes are supposed to stay below 1,600 feet as they pass the airport. That's because planes approaching and leaving St. Petersburg-Clearwater International sometimes fly east-west over TIA at 2,500 feet or above.
A small plane was leaving St. Petersburg-Clearwater at the time, Kerr says, threatening to put criss-crossing planes at roughly the same altitude.
The veteran controller interceded and told the trainee to order the jet to descend immediately, Kerr says.
Later that shift, a small Cherokee landed from the east, over Raymond James Stadium, with an AirTran jet coming behind. A stiff head-wind had slowed the smaller plane's progress.
One of TIA's main north-south runways was shut down for construction, which had complicated taxi patterns.
"It was a real busy session with ground aircraft,'' Kerr says. "All of sudden (the veteran) remembered that he never heard the ground controller talking to the Cherokee and said, 'Where is the Cherokee?' ''
The ground controller had lost track, Kerr says. The small plane was still on the runway, with the jet only 20 seconds or so from landing.
The veteran controller told the trainee to get the small plane off the runway immediately.
The incident wasn't classified as an operational error, Kerr says, because the Cherokee exited the runway before the jet touched down.
Within weeks, the veteran retired.
Collective responsibility and backstopping are proud controller traditions. The fewer the veterans, the heavier the burden on those remaining.
"Prior to the event, he was thinking about (retirement). I think he had made up his mind 50 or 60 percent,'' Kerr said, declining to name the controller. "But the last couple of weeks solidified it in his mind. He did not want to continue in that kind of stress.''
If push comes to shove, TIA managers can reinforce the veteran work force with incentives, Bergen says, including retention bonuses to controllers eligible to retire, and offers of part time work to current retirees.
"While staffing will continue to be an issue for the next couple of years,'' Bergen says, "we have many tools to maintain a safe air traffic system.''
Laura Buchkovich, the retiring veteran, estimates that TIA will not return to normal for 5 to 10 years. By then, she says, "The new people will have gained enough experience and be able to handle unusual situations and emergencies without saying 'What'll I do?' ''
"It will just be automatic.''
Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8442.