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Unsafe Math Problem for FAA: Subtraction of Controllers Means Multiplication of Errors at Nation's Busiest TRACON - (9/13/2005)

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Operational errors have more than doubled in the last year at the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control – the nation’s busiest such facility – at the same time as staffing levels have fallen 12 percent, reflecting yet another key part of the National Airspace System where Federal Aviation Administration mismanagement is resulting in a degradation of the margin of safety.

Of the 18 documented errors at Southern California TRACON since Oct. 1, 2004 – the beginning of the 2005 fiscal year – 11 are classified as “Category A” and “Category B,” which are the most dangerous instances of planes coming too close to each other. Those levels are over two and a half times the number of serious errors recorded in fiscal year 2004.

“The FAA has failed to heed our repeated warnings about critically low staffing levels at this facility,” said Bob Marks, Western Pacific regional vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “The result is that they have put passenger safety at risk. It’s time for the FAA to realistically acknowledge the dangers of putting increased stress and strain on already overburdened air traffic controllers.”

Putting safety at even greater risk, air traffic continues to increase at the facility. In calendar year 2004, controllers handled 2.1 million operations and now they are on track to eclipse that total this year. But the FAA has cut staffing levels dramatically. In the last 18 months, the number of certified controllers has fallen from 246 to 217. That’s well below the 261 controllers the FAA itself says the facility is authorized to employ based on its high traffic volume. In the next two years, 48 more controllers will reach retirement eligibility.

No relief is in sight. The FAA continues to offer no concrete plan to address the problem. It does not plan to place new hires into Southern California TRACON for at least another year and has inexplicably failed to act on approximately 60 requests from controllers across the country to transfer to the facility since last March. Meanwhile, the FAA’s practice of scheduling overtime is now determined by how much money is available as opposed to how many controllers are needed to staff positions.

“Controllers are increasingly required to work longer at the radar scopes and are even forced to do the work of two or three people without assistance,” said Tony Vella, Southern California TRACON facility representative for NATCA. “Exceeding two straight hours working airplanes without a break – the FAA-mandated rule – is now standard. The FAA has also imposed traffic flow restrictions and reduced service to the flying public when there are not enough controllers available to staff positions. Fatigue and falling morale is taking its toll.”

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