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Fri, Jun 03, 2005

FAA: NY TRACON Is Just Fine, Thanks

Administration Report Disputes Union Allegations

A 60-day on-site FAA investigation of the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility found that it is more than adequately staffed for safe operations and that local union-controlled scheduling practices are inefficient and wasteful, creating overtime costs that are more than double any other air traffic control facility in the country. The investigation also found recent management attempts to curb wasteful practices were met with resistance, followed by anonymous reports of "operational errors."

As a result of the investigation's findings, the FAA is immediately acting to curb scheduling abuses that drive excessive overtime spending, address reports of intimidation and insubordination, and ensure controllers' adherence to existing high safety standards.

"The New York TRACON has more than enough staff to get the job done safely" said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. "A schedule that is designed to maximize overtime pay is no schedule at all. The next step is for management to regain control of the daily work schedule and use overtime when traffic requires it."

On March 2, the FAA assembled a team of over 25 safety experts from around the country, including current and former air traffic controllers, current field supervisors, and human resource and organizational professionals to conduct an onsite operational assessment of the New York TRACON.

The team conducted a thorough audit of radar and voice data, facility scheduling practices, shift assignments, controller time-on-position, and overtime and leave usage. The team's audit also consisted of dozens of interviews with managers, supervisors, and employees and first-hand observation of control room operations.

The investigation showed conclusively that the shift scheduling of air traffic controllers – set through a series of agreements with local National Air Traffic Controllers Association officials beginning nearly 15 years ago -– has not met the facility's operational requirements and in fact necessitates much of the scheduled overtime.  The need for overtime was compounded, the report found, by absences due to widespread abuse of sick leave and workers compensation claims for stress routinely filed by some controllers.

As a result, the New York TRACON, which handles fewer flights with more controllers than most large TRACONs around the country, incurred overtime costs of over $4 million in 2004 – more than double that of TRACONs in Chicago, Southern California, Atlanta and Denver combined. Generous amounts of overtime allowed 21 controllers to earn more than $200,000 last year, not including benefits; this year, that number is projected to increase to 51.  Many controllers logged overtime during weeks in which they also called in sick one or more days, resulting in six-and-a-half days' pay for five days of work, the study found.

The findings come after the FAA took steps to reduce NY TRACON overtime in response to a 2004 report by the US Department of Transportation's Inspector General that found facility employees were manipulating the work schedule and using sick leave and annual leave to inflate overtime payments.

 In 2004, the facility acted to reduce the availability of voluntarily-worked "credit hours," and in January 2005, management placed strict controls on overtime usage by controllers and supervisors. Just eight days later, the report said, the FAA began receiving anonymous hotline reports of operational errors. Local NATCA officials also publicly claimed at the time that facility understaffing was jeopardizing safety and launched a campaign to remove the acting manager at the facility – who was taking steps to curb overtime abuse.

The facts and data compiled by the special FAA evaluation team found the New York TRACON has the available staffing necessary to support safe operations and that none of the 160 operational errors – or loss of aircraft separation – reported or uncovered by the team posed any known risk of collision or required the pilot to take action or report a near miss. The operational errors that were classified as most serious under the agency's standards were attributable to performance problems by individual controllers, not staffing levels, the report found. 

The report found no evidence of controller fatigue behind those operational errors that were detected; instead, the investigation concluded that controllers at the facility on average worked only 3 hours and 39 minutes a day managing traffic, the lowest of any major TRACON facility.

Many of the operational errors detected were technical violations of the separation standards on final approach, known as "compression errors," that occur when the separation between aircraft lined up for landing is briefly and minimally reduced as aircraft slow down as they approach the airport. Other operational errors included violations of the strict separation standards for wake turbulence between large, heavy jets and smaller aircraft.  Controllers responsible for wake turbulence errors have been retrained.

In response to the team's findings and recommendations, the FAA will take the following actions immediately:

  • Restore management responsibility for scheduling of the facility by canceling the agreements that gave the union de facto control
  • Appoint the acting manager as permanent manager at the facility effective as of today
  • Transition from an inefficient schedule that necessitates overtime to one used by most other major facilities, which should minimize overtime and save as much as $4 million per year
  • Revamp its quality assurance program for controllers and increase supervisor presence on the control room floor
  • Curb sick leave abuse, schedule manipulation and workers' compensation abuse
  • Ensure a professional environment in the control room, including taking action to address threats and intimidation
  • Turn over all evidence of inappropriate behavior to the Inspector General's office

The Administrator has also directed the FAA's Air Traffic Organization and Office of Aviation Safety to develop a more realistic separation criteria and policy on compression errors on final approach that recognizes the balance between safety and efficiency.

The FAA plans to keep in place for an indefinite period of time a special team of safety and human resource specialists to: assist current facility management to carry out these recommendations; to monitor the facility's ongoing performance; and, to ensure safety while these stronger management controls are being implemented.

FMI: www.faa.gov

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