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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – In the coming weeks as millions of Americans board planes to travel for the holidays there is troubling news from the nation’s air traffic controllers.

Staffing shortages among certified air traffic controllers has reached a crisis level in this country, according to their union.

“The controllers in the chairs are tired, the controllers in the chairs are saying where are the rest of the bodies, where are the people the FAA has said we should have,” said Jim Marinitti, regional vice president for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “We need more eyes on the skies, not less.”

Across the country hundreds of positions for certified air traffic controllers are vacant. The salary for an air traffic controller can range from $40,000 to $160,000 a year and they have a mandatory retirement age of 56.

“The number of certified controllers in this country are at a 27 year low,” Marinitti said. “We don’t have the people to put into positions when the traffic begins to increase.”

Inside the tower at Miami International Airport, they are supposed to have 91 controllers available to work. Instead they have just 58.

The regional control center – which covers air space from Orlando to Puerto Rico – is supposed to have 267 certified controllers. In reality it has only 205.

The tower at Fort Lauderdale International is slated for 26 controllers and has 25. But with the addition of the South Runway, the need for more controllers in Fort Lauderdale is only a matter of time, Marinitti said.

“Over the past five years the FAA has not met their hiring goals once,” he noted.

The impact of these shortages is two-fold: Flight delays as planes back up and additional stress for controllers who are increasingly being forced to work longer hours and six day work weeks.

“There is a fatigue issue that comes into play,” he said.

Marinitti, however, maintains the public is not in danger by these shortages.

“Safety is not at risk now, nor will it be in the future,” he said.

In August, however, CBS News uncovered a never-before released study conducted by NASA on the issue of air traffic controller fatigue and their schedules.

The NASA study warned the FAA four years ago that chronic controller fatigue was undermining safety and urged the FAA to do away with six day work weeks.

The NASA study revealed that nearly one in five air traffic controllers had experienced a “close call” in the previous twelve months.

Fifty-six percent of the controllers who had aircraft narrowly miss one another said fatigue was a factor.

Sixty-one percent of all air traffic controllers reported nearly dozing off on the job.

The NASA study was commissioned after an airline crash, which resulted in 49 people being killed, was blamed in part on controller fatigue.

“We work in an environment where you are expected to be mistake free and correct 100 percent of the time,” Marinitti said. “It’s a lot of stress and a lot of pressure that a lot of people can’t take.”

In a statement, an FAA spokesman said the agency shares the union’s concerns about staffing levels and blamed Congress, saying budget cuts and the government shutdown forced them to fall behind. They say they are now doing what they can to try and catch up. But it could take years.

In the meantime, as the FAA tries to play catch up, more than 3,000 controllers are expected to retire in the next couple of years.

Jim DeFede

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