WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A shortage of experienced air traffic controllers has resulted in a "staffing emergency" that is jeopardizing safety in the sky and on runways in Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Southern California, according to the union representing the nation's 14,800 controllers.
"The whole system is going to hell in a handbag, and it doesn't seem that anybody cares," Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in a conference call to reporters Thursday.
"These people [controllers] are being overworked ... and people are going to make mistakes," he said. "The time is ripe for a very serious catastrophic event on one of these runways."
NATCA stepped up its protracted dispute with the Federal Aviation Administration over staffing levels Thursday, for the first time declaring a "staffing emergency," language that has no real impact but is intended to draw public attention.
"We deliberated long and hard before we took this step because we knew that it carried connotations much more serious then we've stated to date," said NATCA spokesman Doug Church. The organization is also reviewing staffing levels elsewhere and may soon add to its list of perceived trouble spots, with Orlando, Florida, and Las Vegas, Nevada, being the most likely additions.
But an FAA spokeswoman disputed NATCA's claims and called the union's figures "misleading." The FAA anticipated a recent wave of retirements and hired 1,815 new air traffic controllers last year, exceeding its projections, spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
"At the end of the fiscal year, we had a couple hundred more than we had at the end of the previous fiscal year," she said. "We wouldn't be operating these facilities if we thought they were unsafe."
The FAA met its goal of having 14,618 controllers by the end of fiscal 2006 and exceeded its fiscal 2007 goal, ending the year with 14,874 -- some 67 more than anticipated, she said. It is on target to have 14,961 by the end of the current fiscal year, she added.
But NATCA said that because the FAA has been slow to train and certify replacement workers, experienced controllers are demoralized and fatigued and are leaving the work force in record numbers.
Forrey said the FAA has begun putting new trainees in large metropolitan airports instead of grooming them in smaller airports, as was done in the past. Some of the 14 trainees at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport have no previous control tower experience outside the classroom, he said.
"We've never taken people off the street or out of college and put them into those kind of facilities," he said. "It's just unprecedented."
In the Southern California region, the shortage has bumped overtime expenditures from $261,000 in 2004 to $2.8 million last year, Forrey said, adding, "If that is not any indication that people are being overworked ... I don't know what else is."
The FAA's Brown said NATCA is making the complaints because "they're trying to reopen the contract."
NATCA's contract with the FAA expired in 2005, and negotiations over a new deal broke off in April 2006. Later that year, the FAA, with the tacit approval of Congress, imposed a new contract on controllers.
Forrey acknowledged it wants the FAA back at the bargaining table, saying it would help stem the flow of experienced controllers, and would attract recently departed controllers back to work. E-mail to a friend