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"Air traffic controllers complain of understaffing"


 
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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Losing control?
FAA says there is no broad shortage of controllers; union warns that safety is suffering
By James R. Carroll and Nicole Gaudiano
Gannett News Service
 
WASHINGTON -- Nearly 1,100 fewer air traffic controllers are guiding planes through the nation's skies than three years ago, even though flights are increasing.

INDIANA'S AIRSPACE

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents those who "move tin," says some facilities are critically understaffed, causing delays and increasing the possibility of mistakes by tired controllers working 10-hour days and six-day weeks.
 
Operational errors -- mistakes made by controllers -- rose 68 percent from 1998 to 2005, according to FAA data. An operational error can be as minor as letting planes get a tenth of a mile closer than the rules say or as significant as putting two planes on a collision course.
 
"Without a doubt, I would say this rubber band has been stretched as far as it's going to go, and it's not a matter of whether it's going to break but when it's going to break," said Hamid Ghaffari, president of the union's Pacific region.
 
The union, embroiled in a labor dispute with the Federal Aviation Administration, says staffing problems played a role in three air crashes this year, including the Aug. 27 crash of a Comair jet in Lexington, Ky., that killed 49 of 50 people aboard.
 
One controller was handling tower and radar services when the Comair flight took off from the wrong runway and crashed. FAA policy requires two controllers.
 
The FAA says a second controller wouldn't have made a difference; the union says it might have averted tragedy.
 
"Lexington proved that it's going to happen, and it's going to happen again," said Steve McCoy, union representative at a control site in Sacramento, Calif.
 
The two other crashes cited by the union occurred while planes were the responsibility of the Terre Haute airport's Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON.
 
The FAA says the nation's airport towers and radar facilities are adequately staffed to move planes efficiently and safely, and hiring and training are on track to cope with a wave of retirements that has begun.
 
"We are not understaffed today, broadly," FAA Deputy Administrator Robert Sturgell said. "There are some small number of facilities where we do need to increase staff. There are also many facilities where we are fine, where we are even overstaffed."
 
For example, Sturgell said, Atlanta's tower is understaffed, but towers in St. Louis and Pittsburgh, where some airlines have either stopped or reduced operations, are overstaffed.
 
The FAA did not provide facility-by-facility staffing levels. But staffing numbers provided to Gannett News Service and The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal by the union show that towers or radar facilities in Northern California, Dallas, Detroit, New York, Washington-Dulles and other high-volume locations are moving airplanes with as few as 69 percent to 76 percent of the number of controllers that the FAA and the union agreed constituted full staffing in 2003, the most recent benchmark.
 
On average, staffing by certified and trainee controllers nationwide is 89 percent of the figure agreed to in 2003. The average includes 29 facilities that exceed the authorized figure.
 
The Terre Haute facility is at 89 percent of the authorized figure, according to the union's numbers.
 
At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's tower, the nation's busiest, there are 34 controllers handling takeoffs and landings, well below the 55 the union and FAA agreed in 2003 were needed there. Since then, traffic has increased and a new runway has opened, complicating the workload.
 
"We're working six-day work-weeks because we do not have the staffing," said Vince Polk, a union safety chairman who works in the tower.
 
Internal FAA operations logs reveal that staffing problems have caused controllers to increase the separation, or distance, between planes out of Charlotte, N.C.; Washington-Dulles; and New England airports in November.
 
That can cause delays for the airlines and their passengers, according to the union.
 
Shortages also have forced the FAA to take the unusual step of placing green trainees in some of the most high-pressure facilities, such as the Atlanta tower and Dallas-Fort Worth approach control, according to the union.
 
While some new technologies are being put into air traffic control facilities, they have not changed the need for more controllers, according to NATCA President Pat Forrey.
 
"God forbid that we have a major catastrophe or accident because of a staffing shortage," he said. "I think that's probably the great exception to the rule, but every time you make that more a probability or a possibility, you're threatening the safety of the system and the traveling public."

Safe vs. stressed

The nation's aviation safety record is enviable, the union, the FAA and aviation analysts say.
 
Major commercial aviation accidents are extremely rare. The Comair crash was the nation's first major accident since Nov. 12, 2001, when an American Airlines jet crashed in Queens, N.Y., killing 265 people.
 
The number of times planes get too close in the air has dropped while the number of times planes end up on the wrong runway has been relatively flat from 1998 to 2005, FAA statistics show.
 
The industry's safety record "speaks for itself -- it's the safest it's ever been," said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents most major U.S. airlines.
 
But operational errors -- mistakes made by controllers -- rose from 894 in 1998 to 1,506 in 2005, FAA data show.
 
At Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Virginia, controllers committed 23 operational errors between Oct. 1 and Dec. 11, said Rich Santa, the union representative there. That's 10 more than the same period last year.
 
Union figures show there are 363 controllers and trainees at the center. That's slightly above the 2003 authorized level the union originally provided Gannett News Service, but the union later said the center had a higher authorized number of 412.
 
"We are tired," Santa said. "They're working us like crazy."
 
Larry Newman, a commercial pilot and the Air Line Pilots Association's air traffic services group chairman, said his group thinks there is a "slow but steady erosion in our safety net."
 
Flight operations per controller, one measure of workload, were at 9,348 in fiscal 2006, down from 1999. But it's higher than in fiscal 2003, when the average was 8,779, FAA numbers show.
 
Systemwide, the number of flight operations -- by commercial airlines, private planes and military aircraft -- that controllers handle rose from 138.4 million in 2003 to 140.7 million in 2005, according to FAA data.
 
The FAA's Sturgell said in an interview that overtime is down and safety yardsticks indicate staffing is appropriate.
 
The agency said initiatives to increase productivity, scheduling changes, and other policies and technology will improve efficiency in coming years.
 
At Atlanta, for example, new technology has cut pilot-to-controller communications by up to 40 percent, reducing the workload, Sturgell said.

Numbers debated

At the end of the fiscal year in September, there were 14,618 air traffic controllers working in more than 300 FAA facilities nationwide. That compares with 15,691 controllers three years ago.
 
Whether each facility has the number of controllers it needs is hard to say.
 
The FAA did not respond to an Oct. 4 request, filed under the Freedom of Information Act, for the number of controllers working at each facility. The agency is working on a new staffing standard but doesn't expect to complete it until spring.
 
Gannett News Service and The Courier-Journal relied upon facility-by-facility statistics gathered by the union and compared them with the "authorized numbers," which the union and FAA negotiated in 1998 and adjusted through 2003.
 
While the FAA argues the numbers are no longer relevant, about half the nation's air traffic facilities are very close to meeting them with their staff levels at 90 percent or more of the authorized figure.
 
But because it can take up to five years for a trainee to become fully qualified, the staffing numbers look better than they are, the union says.
 
Trainees make up 20 percent to 30 percent of some work forces as the agency tries to keep pace with a wave of retirements of controllers who were hired after President Reagan fired more than 10,000 striking controllers in 1981.
 
The FAA plans to hire 11,851 controllers through fiscal 2015 to offset retirements and meet the expected 25 percent increase in air traffic.

Accidents, incidents, delays

The union says staffing problems contributed to two fatal air crashes this year in Indiana and Illinois involving small planes.
 
On April 20, five Indiana University graduate music students were killed when their small plane crashed in fog south of Bloomington.
 
On Oct. 26, Clarence "Mac" McCormick, a prominent Indiana economic development official, was killed when his plane crashed in Lawrenceville, Ill., on approach to Mid-America Air Center airport.
 
"We have reached the conclusion that the absence of an experienced approach controller at Terre Haute TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) working these flights definitely had an impact on these events," NATCA Great Lakes Regional Vice President Bryan Zilonis said in a statement.
 
Sturgell said he couldn't comment on whether staffing played a role in the accidents.
 
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating and had no comment, spokesman Terry Williams said.
 
At the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center, a controller missed seeing an airliner and a military jet getting too close earlier this month because he was handling too many planes, said NATCA's Ghaffari.
 
Operations logs from numerous air traffic control facilities show that controllers have spaced out planes due to staffing shortages, which the union said can lead to delays.
 
For example, on Nov. 7, the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center sent an advisory that it needed 20 miles between planes leaving Charlotte, N.C., instead of the normal five miles. The reason given was "staffing."
 
Asked whether there were delays because of staffing shortages, Sturgell said, "I'm not aware of a facility that has been consistently understaffed to the point where it's causing a delay at a particular place."
 
John Nance, a former airline pilot, aviation analyst and author, heard similar debates in the 1980s. Between 1985 and 1989, more than 1,400 people died in aviation disasters.
 
The FAA is "stressing the system already stressed to the max -- that's dumb," he said.
 
"What we've basically got here," Nance said, "is the FAA trying to ignore history, and we are going to pay a heavy price if this continues."

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