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FAA Staffing Crisis Leaves One Controller Overburdened by Crush of Traffic in Oakland - (8/25/2005)

CONTACT: Jeff Tilley, 510-673-1398

FREMONT, Calif. – The critical condition of air traffic controller staffing levels at Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center was exposed in a dramatic and unsafe way early this morning when the Federal Aviation Administration was forced to combine two busy sectors that handle trans-oceanic traffic due to lack of staffing. The resulting traffic crush left one air traffic controller in charge of 50 planes, most of them Boeing 747s and DC-10s en route to Asia. This is twice the normal traffic load controllers are accustomed to handling on separate sectors that the FAA is supposed to staff with multiple personnel.

At 5 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, the controller told a co-worker in an adjacent part of the facility that she was told there was not another controller coming in to relieve her until 6 a.m. Her sector was full of outstanding and unprocessed messages that needed to be relayed to oceanic flights. When she asked for help, the FAA supervisor was not in the control room. When the supervisor finally showed up, he told the controller there was nobody to open up a second sector. At 6 a.m., the combined sector was finally split when another controller came in for a regular shift.

“One person working 50 airplanes is like a juggler keeping about 50 balls in the air at once,” said Bob Marks, Western Pacific regional vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “Staffing levels are at their lowest level in nearly 25 years at Oakland Center at the peak of the summer travel season. This is gross irresponsibility and mismanagement on the part of the FAA to fail to take care of the staffing shortages plaguing both Oakland Center and the entire system.”

Oakland Center is authorized by the FAA to have 268 controllers, but currently, only 176 certified controllers are working. Fourteen of those are leaving the facility within the next month to work at Northern California TRACON. Five others are scheduled to leave for other facilities within six months.

Oakland Center NATCA Facility Representative Jeff Tilley said new hires are just starting to arrive at the facility but they provide no short term relief due to the fact they must complete a lengthy period of training. “They were hired far too late to help out this summer,” Tilley said. “We’ve been sounding the alarm for several years now about understaffing here and today was probably the most outrageous and mind-boggling example yet of how the system is being stretched to the limit due to a lack of eyes on the skies.”

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