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Wed, Apr 04, 2007

NATCA Says Facility Understaffing Leading To 'Safety Crisis' In SoCal

Says Tired Controllers Forced To Work O/T, Six-Day Weeks

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association states a worsening air traffic controller staffing crisis at major tower and radar control facilities in Southern California is shrinking the margin of safety to dangerously low levels, due to tired controllers forced to work overtime and even six-day work weeks.

The union also tells ANN a high number of retirement-eligible controllers are either leaving -- or are about to leave -- due to the Federal Aviation Administration's imposed work rules and reduced pay bands, and a high number of new hires that are taxing the FAA's ability to train them efficiently and successfully in some of the world’s busiest and most demanding airspace.

Below is a rundown of the situation at many of the busiest FAA facilities in Southern California:

LOS ANGELES TOWER (LAX): The FAA has only 35 certified controllers on staff, 10 of which are eligible to retire this year. Four others have been selected to other facilities and are scheduled to leave soon.  The FAA says it will hire nine trainees, but even if six certify by this time next year -- an accurate predictor based on past training failure rates -- LAX Tower staffing could be as low as 27 certified controllers. "A number that low would cause massive delays, no matter how much the FAA forces controllers to work overtime," said Mike Foote, the LAX facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. 

Historically at LAX, low staffing equals higher numbers of runway incursions and controller errors. The year 2000 saw a frightening 25 combined runway incursions and surface incidents. At the time, the tower had only 34 certified controllers. In 2004, LAX was fully staffed with 47 controllers and the combined total of runway incursions and surface incidents dropped to nine.

"The FAA has given numbers for shifts that it believes is required to maintain safety," Foote said. "Currently, LAX Tower, even using overtime, never has the required numbers present on these shifts."

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA TERMINAL RADAR APPROACH CONTROL (TRACON): The San Diego-based facility is currently staffed with only 187 certified controllers, plus 33 trainees who are mostly in the early stages of their on-the-job training process. By Oct. 1, the FAA says 30 more new hires will arrive. But 56 of the fully certified controllers are eligible to retire by year’s end, and it is highly unlikely that enough of the new hires will successfully complete the incredibly demanding training process at the nation’s busiest TRACON to come close to keeping up with the rate of attrition.

Making matters worse, says SoCal TRACON NATCA Facility Representative Tony Vella, mandatory overtime is just now starting in the facility, which is likely to drive up the already high number of operational errors (seven) this year due to rising fatigue levels. Operational errors are instances when two planes get closer than FAA rules allow for safe separation.

Vella said there is a direct correlation between staffing and errors and pointed to facts from the past few years. In fiscal year 2002, with 270 controllers, the facility had five errors. In FY 2006, with staffing having dropped to a low of 200 controllers, the facility had 21 errors.

LOS ANGELES AIR ROUTE TRAFFIC CONTROL CENTER: The Palmdale, CA facility, one of 20 en route centers in the continental United States, continues on a pace to have the most operational errors of any center this fiscal year. "We are averaging one operational error per week," said ZLA NATCA Facility Representative Garth Koleszar. "I believe we are currently second in the country in total en route errors. Our errors increased from 11 to 19 for the first four months of the fiscal year versus last year. This is an increase of over 70% for the same time period. Our people are tired. They consistently are forced to work two hours on position, a goal the agency has stated it tries to achieve because of safety."

Fatigue is a big issue, Koleszar said. "Nearly 30 percent of our controllers are trainees and not fully certified," he said. "That high number of on-the-job-trainees is putting added pressure on the limited number of veteran controllers doing the training and increasing their fatigue."

Koleszar said the continued attrition of experienced, seasoned controllers is placing the system in jeopardy. "Those seasoned controllers will continue to leave because they have no incentive to stay," he added. "By the FAA’s own estimate, we will lose nearly 100 controllers by 2010 due to retirements alone. Unfortunately, I don't see the Agency taking any steps to properly address the issue in any way that would have an impact on the increasing numbers of errors we are having."

LONG BEACH TOWER: Every controller on staff is now scheduled for mandatory overtime, resulting in six-day weeks and 10-hour days and reducing the margin of safety by forcing tired controllers to do more work. "One regular day off a week, with two or three days a week of scheduled 10-hour days does not give us enough rest," Long Beach NATCA Facility Representative Pat Hunt said.

"With the FAA instituting new rules on TIPH (taxi into position and hold for departing flights) and all the closures due to construction going on for the next three-to-four years, we do not have the required staffing even with six-day weeks and 10-hour days," Hunt said. TIPH is a procedure used by controllers to safely and efficiently move traffic on the airport surface and keep the system moving but the FAA has mandated that staffing must be at a sufficiently high level in order for controllers to use the procedure. But that is not the case at Long Beach and without TIPH, the airport’s efficiency -- and margin of safety -- will suffer.

SANTA ANA JOHN WAYNE AIRPORT (SNA): Of the 26 controllers on staff (20 are fully certified), 12 are eligible to retire. In addition, three supervisors are set to retire, which will mean their replacements are likely to come from the certified controller ranks, reducing staffing even further. Currently, the FAA managers at the facility are short-staffing certain shifts due to the low numbers but there have also been a few weeks where the FAA has forced controllers to work six-day weeks.

FMI: www.natca.org, www.faa.gov

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