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FAA Review of Air Traffic Control Issues at Chicago TRACON Welcomed, but Badly Flawed, Air Traffic Controllers Contend - (1/22/2004)

CONTACT: (Chicago) Ray Gibbons, 630/546.9958 (Wash.) Doug Church, 202/220.9802

WASHINGTON – The team of Federal Aviation Administration investigators being sent to the Chicago approach control facility in Elgin, Ill., this week to review air traffic control issues in the wake of a rising volume of flights and corresponding increase of errors is doomed to fail, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

“While we’re pleased the FAA is finally devoting attention to critical issues impacting the safety of our skies, we do not understand why they are not talking to the people who guide our nation’s planes home day in and day out,” said Ray Gibbons, NATCA facility representative for the Chicago TRACON. “It would seem to be in the best interest of ensuring safety that air traffic controllers be included in the review. Our exclusion is proof that the FAA doesn’t take the situation in Chicago as seriously as it should. We call on the FAA to reverse its position and allow controllers to participate.”

Gibbons continued: “It seems that the FAA cares more about delays than staffing, congestion and the decreasing margin of safety. They can’t possibly get to the root of the problems without including us in the process, but they are bound and determined to act like they are doing something.”

The union was the first organization to voice concerns about rapidly rising delays and congestion in Chicago’s skies and insufficient staffing at the Elgin facility. “It took the FAA over a year to realize the magnitude of the problem,” stated NATCA President John Carr. “And when they finally decided to send in a special evaluation team, they stocked it with paper pushers and arm-chair controllers who haven’t seen the business end of a radar scope in years.”

Gibbons said the FAA is still unwilling to formally acknowledge a problem in Elgin. In a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., on June 19, 2003, FAA Director of Air Traffic Bruce Johnson said that no staffing shortage existed. In a second letter to Hastert on Dec. 3, 2003, Steve Brown, the FAA’s associate administrator, also claimed that no staffing shortage existed and that the FAA was “committed to providing resources necessary to maintain high standards.”

In spite of those two claims, the agency took the rare step of sending a special evaluation team to Chicago this week.

Currently, the Chicago TRACON is staffed with only 75 full performance level controllers. The FAA’s claim of a nearly fully staffed facility of 99 controllers is highly misleading because one quarter of those individuals are trainees, who must work with a full performance level controller at all times. Most of the trainees will most likely not survive the facility’s rigorous training process, if history holds true. Controller numbers are dwindling by the month and it’s going to get worse. In addition, one-half of the full performance level controllers will be eligible to retire within the next two years.

“The FAA cannot close its eyes and act like this problem is going to go away. The FAA seems to think you can wave a magic wand and turn someone into an air traffic controller overnight. But we’re not magicians, we’re highly trained professionals. And we’re not landing magic carpets, we’re landing airplanes full of people,” Carr stated. “The FAA needs to wake up and make sure that they are prepared not only to meet today’s staffing concerns, but the serious concerns of the future. Over half of our workforce of 15,000 will be eligible to retire by 2011. The FAA needs to bring controllers to the table and work out real solutions to this very real problem.”

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