WASHINGTON (PAI)–Saying the safety situation in the nation’s skies, especially over Chicago, New York, Atlanta and Southern California, is dire, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association has declared a “controller emergency” in those four areas. And it is taking its campaign for safety in the skies to the public, the airlines and Capitol Hill.

In a Jan. 10 interview with reporters, union president Patrick Forrey noted that 1,600 veteran controllers left the Federal Aviation Administration last year, with more than half of them retiring due to FAA-imposed wage freezes and cuts after the agency’s Bush-named managers unilaterally declared an “impasse” in bargaining and imposed their contract terms on the controllers.

“We expect this year to be just as bad,” Forrey said, with “2,200 eligible to leave right now.” In Atlanta, Chicago, New York and L.A., the airport towers and Tracons—in-flight towers that control large areas of airspace in states around major airports—are short-staffed by 40 percent or more.

In Atlanta, FAA rushed 14 trainees into the tower of one of the nation’s two busiest airports to fill the gap. Ten have only ground training. “They don’t know the difference between a 737 and a DC-10,” Forrey says. Chicago O’Hare has 76 fully certified controllers, needs 97 now—and 117 when O’Hare expands in November.

“There is a staffing emergency within the air traffic control system which the agency refuses to deal with,” Forrey added.

The reason for the shortage is the agency’s refusal to negotiate a new and fair contract with the union. The controllers have worked without a contract during the entire Bush government, after Bush’s Office of Management and Budget, in his first days in the White House, rejected a pact NATCA worked out with Clinton officials.

Instead, last fall, FAA imposed its own pact, which froze the pay of 95 percent of the controllers. It also did nothing to mitigate six-day weeks in stressful strenuous jobs, lack of rest, increasing numbers of near-misses due to controller fatigue and hazards in the towers that range from water leaks to fog to literally, bats in the belfry in St. Louis.

The FAA claims it is filling the vacancies with 1,400 new trainees, but Forrey noted only 40 of them have become fully certified controllers, while 250 have resigned and another 250 have already washed out of the training as unqualified.

As a result, controller overtime has skyrocketed in Southern California, the number of near-misses in Chicago and the surrounding skies from Indiana through Iowa has doubled in a year, to 56, and “there are now just 22 fully certified controllers in New York, which should have 39.”

“These people are going to be overworked and there are not enough eyes and ears in the skies and there’s going to be a serious accident,” Forrey said. “That’s not us saying it, that’s the GAO,” he added, referring to Congress’s independent investigations and auditing arm, the Government Accountability Office.

Forrey has been lobbying the FAA “to take the appropriate measure to do the damn job—to make sure the system operates both safely and efficiently.” But so far agency officials have turned a deaf ear.

So the union is taking its campaign to several other areas. Forrey sent a letter Jan. 10 to the nation’s airline executives, proposing a joint meeting to discuss the safety hazards, which are a threat to the industry. And the union, agency officials and other stakeholders will meet lawmakers, headed by Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chair of a House subcommittee on aviation, next week in a roundtable on safety.

Later this month, 400 controllers will come to Washington to buttonhole lawmakers, particularly senators, to pass legislation renewing and setting standards for FAA and its programs. That House-passed bill is held up in the Senate by a dispute over how much of the burden for paying for the aviation system should fall on private and corporate planes, as opposed to passenger jets.

That bill also would set levels for the controller workforce, authorize money for new and improved radar and navigation systems and channel airport passenger tax dollars to FAA functions. It could also be used to push for a settlement of the contract dispute, Forrey said.

Such a settlement, quickly, could help avert the looming controller crisis, he added.

That’s because once a pact is reached, with raises and better working conditions, the FAA could augment its controller ranks by asking those controllers who had recently retired—including the 856 retirees (out of 1,600 total departures) last year—to return.

Otherwise, “I think there are times when it’s unsafe,” Forrey says. “Our guys are doing the best they can with what they have—and on the other end of the microphone, you have pilots who are overworked and fatigued. The whole system is going to hell in a handbag.”