Senior Airman Dustin Conner, an air traffic controller with the 48th Operations Support Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England, says he will leave the service when his enlistment ends to get a civilian job.

Senior Airman Dustin Conner, an air traffic controller with the 48th Operations Support Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England, says he will leave the service when his enlistment ends to get a civilian job. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

RAF LAKENHEATH, England — Staff Sgt. Anthony Haynes already ponders a decision he won’t face for about two years.

Should he stay in the Air Force and endure a heavy deployment schedule and workload? Or should the seven-year veteran take his skills as an air traffic controller and sell them to the Federal Aviation Administration for a salary that could reach six figures?

“I have no quarrels with the Air Force. I wouldn’t mind doing 20 years,” said Haynes, a controller with the 48th Operations Support Squadron at RAF Lakenheath.

But, he said, will the Air Force sweeten the pot to keep people like him in the fold?

“That’s going to be the deciding factor,” he said.

The Air Force soon may have to make things sickeningly sweet for its air traffic controllers. The FAA, which mines all the services to fill its ranks of 15,000 controllers, recently announced a plan to hire 12,500 controllers in the next decade, including almost 700 this year, with the figure rising to more than 1,000 a year from 2009 to 2014.

William Shumann, a spokesman for the FAA in Washington, D.C., said he doesn’t know how many controllers traditionally are hired with military training, but the armed forces are one of two main sources for the agency. The other is a collegiate training program.

The FAA’s hiring needs announced around Christmas caught the eye of the Air Force, which already watches a steady stream of its 3,000 controllers trade their uniforms for civilian attire before reaching retirement.

“We’re certainly looking at it,” said Chief Master Sgt. Donald Ball of the Air Force Flight Standards Agency at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. “We’re concerned, but it’s kind of hard to speculate.”

The FAA’s large need has roots in the Reagan Administration. A majority of the nation’s air traffic controllers went on strike on Aug. 3, 1981. Reagan ordered them back to work within 48 hours. When they remained on the picket line, the president handed them pink slips.

To replace them, the agency was forced to hire 5,643 controllers in 1982 and 3,062 in 1983. Because of federal law that requires controllers to retire at age 56, the FAA is preparing for a heavy string of retirements in upcoming years.

Ball said the service retains 53 percent of its first-term airmen as controllers, just short of the Air Force goal of 55 percent.

“After 10 years, we’ve lost 75 percent of the people we brought in,” he said in a telephone interview. “That’s an alarming statistic.”

The chief reason, of course, is the paycheck offered by the FAA.

Shumann said, “The pay for somebody who is fully certified could range from $70,000 to $120,000 annually. That variation is based on the facility.”

The FAA operates 315 facilities, including towers, radar approach sites and flight centers that control traffic at high altitudes.

Besides the military and college programs, the FAA also pulls controllers off the street and trains them in a 16-week course at its school in Oklahoma City. A military controller, Shumann said, could shave five weeks off that course.

Even then, however, training for the specific facility could take from 18 months to four years to complete, depending on the complexity of the facility’s traffic flow, procedures and the like. Until then, the controller is not fully certified.

It’s a sure bet, however, that the FAA’s need will be a siren’s call for Air Force controllers.

Senior Airman Dustin Conner, a colleague of Haynes’ in England, already has his mind made up.

“I’m getting out,” said Conner, 23, who has barely a year left on his first enlistment. “Without a doubt. I’ve already started talking to a few guys back in Texas.”

The money is a major attraction, he admitted, but he also sees what becomes of senior controllers in the Air Force as younger ones leave.

“I look at my bosses,” he said. “They’re putting in 12 and 14-hour shifts every day.”

The FAA is most attractive to young controllers because it refuses to hire anyone over the age of 31. With the mandated retirement age of 56, it wants 25 years from its controllers.

However, it did reach an agreement with the military a few years ago to hire controllers who retired from the service whatever their age.

The idea, which was strongly pushed by the Air Force, was to stem the loss of young and midlevel controllers, allowing them to stay in uniform and still have an FAA career, albeit a shortened one. But the plan also encouraged controllers to jump to the FAA at the 20-year mark rather than staying in a few more years, cutting the military’s experience level at both ends.

Ball said the Air Force loses 40 to 60 controllers to retirement each year, but has 180 now on the books with 20-plus years of service.

The Air Force usually provides controllers with re-enlistment bonuses, the size of which depend on the service’s need and is based on a person’s base pay and length of re-enlistment. It can be substantial. For example, a staff sergeant with six years in the service who re-enlists for another six years would now receive about $48,000. Half of that is paid upfront and the rest is spread throughout the duration of the re-enlistment. Also, a controller receives special-duty assignment pay, an additional sum added to the monthly pay in several career fields that require additional training or are in demand by the service. Haynes, for example, banks an extra $225 a month.

To head off the possible exodus, Ball, a controller for more than 25 years, said the Air Force is now reaching out to controllers, extolling the benefits of the military over civilian work, emphasizing such things as free medical care, housing allowances and other enticements not offered by the FAA.

“It’s called re-recruiting, and we’re doing that currently,” he said.

Staff Sgt. Vickie Snow, who is chief of airfield management with the 309th Air Support Squadron at Chièvres Air Base, Belgium, is not a controller, but she works with and knows many of them. The FAA plan is a frequent talking point for them, she said.

But, she said, anyone considering a jump to the FAA should weigh the decision carefully.

“To think that money is everything is being blind,” she said.

The pay isn’t blinding Haynes, he said. He knows FAA controllers can work long hours. They can be incredibly busy and face mountains of stress.

But, still, he said, the FAA is appealing. Whether he jumps or not, he said, many will, especially younger controllers like himself.

“They’re going to take that opportunity,” he said. “(The Air Force) should be targeting these young guys because they’ve got a big decision to make.”

The Air Force will lose controllers to the FAA. History says that. The numbers that take advantage of the agency’s upcoming hiring need is anybody’s guess.

But Ball has been around the Air Force long enough to remember when the FAA hired thousands of controllers to replace those fired by President Reagan.

“It was the same scenario then,” he said. “But we continued to do the mission.”

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now