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Chicago Air Traffic Controllers Say “Level of Safety Has Diminished Below an Acceptable Level" - (4/30/2003)

CHICAGO – Handcuffed with insufficient staffing, overloaded with rising and record amounts of traffic, saddled by the Federal Aviation Administration with complicated revisions to landing procedures at the world’s busiest airport and stung by rising numbers of errors and declining morale, air traffic controllers in the Chicago area have declared “enough is enough.”

“The level of safety has diminished below an acceptable level,” said Ray Gibbons, veteran controller and president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association local chapter at Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control in Elgin, Ill. “Morale is as low as I’ve ever seen it. There’s even a fear mentality present. Controllers are hoping it won’t be them if something bad happens.”

Gibbons has asked the National Transportation Safety Board to intervene.

Staffing remains the most critical need. Chicago TRACON, the nation’s third-busiest approach control facility, is authorized to staff 100 controllers but currently employs just 73 full performance level personnel, a third of which will be eligible to retire within two years. Nearly half can retire in four years. At the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in Aurora, Ill., the nation’s third-busiest en route facility, 40 percent of the controller workforce will be eligible to retire within the next five years. Controllers at both facilities cite this understaffing problem for a highly unusual rash of errors this year. At the center, there have been 12 errors in the past 15 days.

“It’s very simple – we’ve got too few controllers working too many airplanes in Chicago and they are bravely trying to handle a vast array of obstacles thrown their way on nearly every shift,” NATCA President John Carr said. “It’s unacceptable. For the sake of the public’s air safety, we demand the Federal Aviation Administration address this situation immediately and take the steps necessary to fix this rapidly deteriorating and critical problem.”

While air traffic nationwide is down two percent from pre-September 11, 2001 levels, the Chicago area is the clear exception. In 2002, controllers at both O’Hare International Airport and the TRACON facility worked a record amount of flights and the numbers continue to rise. The TRACON expects to approach 1.5 million operations this year. In addition, controllers at Midway Airport tower have handled 15 percent more traffic in April since Chicago Mayor Richard Daley – in the middle of the night and with no warning – closed Meigs Field downtown by ripping up the runway, unnecessarily clogging other area airports with over 1,500 monthly operations.

Other problems persist. On Monday, the lone radar technician at O’Hare was on sick leave and there was no replacement due to a chronic understaffing problem. This had serious implications when a radar failure occurred for more than two-and-a-half hours, causing nearly 200 delays and forcing O’Hare controllers to shut off departures. On Tuesday, a badly overloaded sector at the TRACON forced controllers to scramble to separate aircraft and sort out a host of potential conflicts. On top of this, what used to be a sequenced, orderly flow of arriving planes into O’Hare has turned into a daily disorganized cluster of aircraft on converging courses with little or no margin for error, because of an FAA directive which drastically changed the rules of aircraft participation in a program designed to make more efficient use of valuable runway capacity.

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