HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii air traffic controllers have to keep track of 288,000 square miles of airspace. No small task and those being trained today are getting a whole new experience.
Last year there were more than 265,000 takeoffs and landing here at Honolulu International Airport. That made it the 27th busiest airport in the country.
It used to take a controller three to five years to get fully certified. Now it's only one to two years. And it's a good thing too because controllers face mandatory retirement at age 56. After the strike and subsequent firings in 1981, when more than 11,000 air traffic controllers were dismissed, many of the replacements are now forced to depart. Right now more than half of the 100 controllers in Honolulu were hired within the last five years. The $1.5 million simulator helps recruits get up to speed fast.
"We're able to let the developmental controllers basically run with it and see what they can do. Sometimes it works out well and sometimes not. But the main thing it does give them the experience of working heavy traffic before they have to do it in the tower cab which produces a much better product which is the most important thing," said Neil Okuna, FAA Front Line Manager, as he showed off the simulator.
It's come a long way from just two years ago when they trained on a paper diagram on a table.
"We'd have a plane on the table top and the guy you tell him clear for takeoff and the guy would go down the runway and take it up and tell him to turn left or whatever and he would do that," recalled Okuna.
Now they can simulate everything from lightning to snow or an emergency with a plane coming in on fire. Despite the better technology air traffic controllers have taken heat the past few years because the number of reported errors has shot up. Congress is even investigating but the FAA says the spike in errors is in large part to a rule change in 2009 where controllers can report their own errors and be exempt from disciplinary action. Prior to that the FAA logged errors differently, but now they want more data to spot trends and get better knowledge because nowadays everything is a learning tool.
The FAA plans to hire 12 more controllers to work here next year. You have to be younger than 31 years old to get the job.