FAA'S air traffic controller academy ready for the 'crunch'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If all 13,000 unionized air traffic controllers are fired for failing to return to work, the burden of developing their replacements will fall most heavily on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) academy in Oklahoma City -- the only one of its kind for civilians in the United States.

The academy says it is ready for the job, but it may have to triple its workload. Its staff of 700 currently trains about 1,900 controllers a year, and the FAA thinks it might ultimately need to fill 6,500 vacancies if such measures as closing low-volume control towers and phasing out nonessential jobs are taken.

Last November, anticipating the possibility of a strike, the FAA went through its file of applicants for traffic controller positions and asked how many were still interested. There were 9,000 positive replies, according to FAA spokesman Fred Farrar. Since the strike began, 11,000 more people have asked for applications.

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Should any or all of these applicants be notified that the FAA wants them, here is what they can expect:

* An aptitude test, an interview at a regional control facility, and -- having successfully cleared those hurdles -- a physical examination and security check.

* An intensive course of study at Oklahoma City in one of two areas, "en route" and "terminal," whose names describe the type of work involved. En-route students train for 17 weeks; terminal students for 20 weeks. Mark Weaver of the academy press relations office says a student usually has the opportunity to choose which of the two courses he wants "but quite often he's picked, if you know what I mean."

The work, Mr. Weaver says, involves an intensive introduction to radar and considerable memorizing, particularly of traffic patterns and aircraft designations, or "call signs." All students take the same classes; there are no electives.

* Assignment, upon graduation, to airport control towers or the now-familiar regional centers. There, students continue training for four to five years until they can perform most, if not all, control functions, such as giving out flight patterns, directing traffic on the ground and in the air betwee n destinations, and bringing planes down safely.

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