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Controllers Rise to Air Traffic Challenges Presented by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita - (10/4/2005)

TEXAS-LOUISIANA-MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST – Several dozen individual air traffic controllers in facilities affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita have met the extreme challenges of safely moving large volumes of traffic in the recovery effort by displaying an extraordinary level of skill, selflessness and dedication.

Here is a sampling of what has transpired:

BEAUMONT, Texas – Controllers were asked to keep open the Beaumont-Port Arthur Air Traffic Control Tower longer than intended to help the military airlift approximately 4,000 evacuees out of the city. Facility Representative Kim Hanley of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association led a team of NATCA controllers who handled a wide range and large volume of military aircraft and also dealt with pilots who were unfamiliar with the airfield. One military pilot said, “Because of Mr. Hanley's incredible professionalism, a situation that should have been complete chaos became a smooth and effective operation. He maintained his composure, his sense of humor, and his focus on the task at hand. My crew and I were amazed at Mr. Hanley's attitude since we assumed he lives in the local area and he was certainly concerned for the safety of his family and property as Hurricane Rita set her sights on Beaumont. His dedication to accomplishing the mission was inspiring, and thanks to the hard work of Mr. Hanley and his team, thousands of sick, injured, and elderly people are alive today.”

In Beaumont, as in other facilities that handled large volumes of traffic before the arrival of a hurricane the past couple of years, controllers stayed to make sure the area was evacuated and some worked for 19 consecutive hours, putting their own safety last, knowing their families may have to evacuate without them. They are also residents of the area. While their homes were in the path, they put the safety of the public first.

BATON ROUGE, La. –Baton Rouge Ryan Field (BTR) is home to 20 air traffic controllers who, until Katrina hit, worked approximately 300-350 operations a day with antiquated computer equipment and facilities. During the month of September, controllers worked an average of 922 daily operations, including a record-high of 1,624 on Friday, Sept. 2. Daily counts today remain more than twice pre-Katrina levels. “Our facility has had to respond immediately to enact new procedures to handle the increased traffic and staffing needs,” said Nic Bordelon, BTR facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “When it was really busy, taxiways were parking lots for helicopters.”

NEW ORLEANS, La. – At New Orleans Tower (MSY) and Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), 28 controllers were working the operation in the days after the storm when recovery and relief missions were in full swing. Ten of them served on temporary duty from the Dallas and Houston areas. Of the 18 local controllers working, 10 have no homes left. Some have also worked as long as 20 straight hours. At the height of the rescue operations, MSY was running three and a half to four times the number operations it usually has in a normal day. Controllers have slept on cots in the radar room, a favored spot because it remained air conditioned to protect the computer equipment.

LAFAYETTE, La. – At Lafayette Airport, one hour west of Baton Rouge, the 18 controllers normally work 300 to 325 operations as well. In the days after Katrina, they handled 1,200 operations. Traffic has slowed a bit but controllers are still working approximately 800-900 operations daily, including increased helicopter traffic due to the destruction of small helicopter pads along the coast.

Lafayette Tower controllers worked into the evening on Sept. 23 as Rita approached and only went home when forced by FAA supervisors, who declared the facility closed. But the controllers returned to open the facility at 4:30 a.m. the next morning, even though most equipment was not working, to provide assistance to relief aircraft and to ensure the safe, expeditious flow of air traffic in the facility’s airspace. This was done even though tropical storm and occasional hurricane conditions were still present.

GULFPORT, Miss. – At Gulfport Airport, which serves the Mississippi coastal region, including Biloxi, the FAA solicited volunteers from the controller ranks in other locations to work the traffic while most local controllers took care of their own personal situations and family members. Two controllers have come from Memphis Tower. Four more are from Pensacola TRACON and four others are from Mobile Tower.

“This is the finest example I have ever seen of what our controllers are made of and the lengths to which they will go to protect the safety of their system and their communities,” NATCA President John Carr said. “They think they are just doing their jobs but we know they are more special than that; rising well above the ordinary call to duty. The FAA knows how dedicated air traffic controllers are, but rather than commend them publicly, the agency is continuing its well-funded campaign of controller bashing.”

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