The Federal Aviation Administration announced a plan yesterday to hire 12,500 air traffic controllers over the next decade and let some existing workers stay on the job longer...

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WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration announced a plan yesterday to hire 12,500 air traffic controllers over the next decade and let some existing workers stay on the job longer than their mandatory retirement age to offset a tidal wave of looming retirements.

The plan outlined by FAA Administrator Marion Blakey also calls for speeding up training to get controllers on the job faster and reducing the work force at airports with less air traffic.

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The genesis for the moves can be traced to 1981, when President Reagan fired more than 10,000 striking controllers and hired replacements. Nearly three-quarters of those replacements will be eligible to retire in the next 10 years.

“The retirement of controllers is coming at us in a great wave, and we’re going to have to step up to bring new controllers into the system,” Blakey said.

The plan includes 435 new controllers next year for whom Congress already has budgeted. In 2006, 1,249 more will be added, and varying numbers will be hired in subsequent years through 2014. When hiring is completed, the FAA will have about 16,200 controllers, about 1,500 more than now, to accommodate an expected increase in air traffic.

Both Reps. John Mica, R-Fla., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. — chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Transportation aviation subcommittee — said the FAA should have tried to solve the problem sooner because so many controllers are approaching retirement.

Controllers’ salaries and benefits account for a third of the $6.2 billion air traffic control budget, said Russell Chew, the FAA’s chief operating officer.

How the FAA will pay for the new wave of controllers that it has to train while others are still on the job is unclear. Blakey said she could not estimate the price tag for the new controllers, partly because the existing contract expires next year and the cost of a new agreement won’t be known until it’s negotiated.

With more people than ever traveling by air, airlines support adding controllers to ensure the planes run on schedule. Delays are very costly for the airlines. But there also is concern that if the FAA can’t get Congress to approve the money needed for the new controllers it will seek to raise taxes on the airlines.

Much of the FAA’s revenue comes from a passenger ticket tax pegged at 7.5 percent of fares. Cheaper tickets offered by discount airlines have caused the FAA’s dedicated revenues to fall 8 percent in the past four years.

During the current fiscal year, the FAA had to take $470 million from a fund to replace aging equipment and use it to pay for air traffic control. Still, Blakey is confident the money needed for the controllers “will be there from Congress.”

John Carr, president of the air traffic controllers union, was skeptical lawmakers will approve the funding. He predicted the FAA will be forced to put off equipment upgrades and airport expansion and reduce the number of hours that some smaller airports operate.

“We need to tell the flying public to bring a good book to the airport, because they’re going to be there for a while,” Carr said.

Blakey said the FAA will also save money by doing a better job screening people to see if they have the aptitude to be air traffic controllers, speeding training and managing the work force more efficiently.

The FAA wants to reduce the average three- to five-year training period to two to three years. Blakey said that can be done by using simulators to augment classroom and on-the-job training.

“Exceptional” controllers will be allowed to work up to five years past the mandatory retirement age of 56.