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Thu, Mar 22, 2007

DOT Inspector General Releases Audit Of FAA Staffing

NATCA Says Report Should Be "Wake Up Call"

Last week, the Inspector General's office for the Department of Transportation completed its review of staffing at FAA radar approach control and radar-equipped tower facilities, in response to Congressional requests in the aftermath of the Comair 5191 crash last August in Lexington, KY. The DOT found the FAA's oral (but unwritten) guidance to provide two controllers in the Blue Grass tower was "misinterpreted" and "inconsistently applied."

"FAA issued verbal guidance in August 2005 -- a year prior to the [Lexington] crash -- reiterating that two controllers should be on duty during midnight shifts at facilities with both radar and tower functions," said a written DOT statement. "Since the Comair accident, FAA has formalized the verbal guidance into a written order which was, in our opinion, an appropriate and necessary action.

"We recommended that FAA: (1) communicate changes in air traffic policies in writing to ensure uniform implementation and compliance; and (2) develop and implement appropriate policies and procedures to ensure that facilities are complying with provisions of the new order. FAA concurred with our recommendations and is taking appropriate actions to address them," the DOT added (the full 23-page report is available for download at the FMI link below -- Ed.)

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) -- which has argued FAA staffing levels are woefully inadequate for the volume of traffic controllers are tasked with -- said the IG report should be "a wakeup call" to the FAA to increase staffing levels above what the union considers budget-mandated numbers.

"The IG’s report very clearly confirms that it took a disaster for the FAA to get around to making sure its facilities were complying with its own order on proper staffing," NATCA told ANN. "The urgency with which the Agency acted after the crash to ensure proper midnight shift staffing should have been done immediately after the Raleigh-Durham incident in 2005. That was the time to act. Not after people lost their lives. That’s too late."

"This is why NATCA is so firmly committed to speaking out against the terribly unsafe staffing levels in place today at facilities all over the country, especially considering the FAA has just announced a new controller workforce plan that is three years too late... The Agency has thrown out longstanding safe staffing levels at every facility and replaced them with a manufactured "range" of budget-based staffing levels that slashes between nine and 26 percent of the amount of controllers needed to properly staff towers and radar facilities."

NATCA also noted it is "disturbing" the IG found the midnight shift at Lexington was staffed with only one controller for 11.1 percent of the shifts the agency reviewed.

"That meant the Agency could only guarantee the safety of the system on these shifts 89 percent of the time," NATCA stated. "In our profession, an 89 percent proficiency rate not only gets you fired, it unnecessarily puts safety at risk."

As ANN has reported, only one controller was in the tower at Lexington the morning of August 27, 2006 -- when the Comair regional jet took the wrong runway at Bluegrass Airport, and attempted to take off from a runway of insufficient length for the loaded CRJ.

FMI: Read The Full DOT IG Review (.pdf), www.natca.org

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