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Poor Staffing, FAA Directive on Approach Control Responsibility Had Impact on Two Indiana Fatal Accidents, Controllers Say - (11/15/2006)

CONTACT:     Dave O’Malley (Indianapolis), 317-640-4093 (cell), 317-247-2547 (NATCA office); Laurie Krumwiede (Terre Haute), 812-236-3601  

INDIANAPOLIS – The crash last month of a twin-engine plane, on approach to the Mid-American Air Center in Lawrenceville, Ill., was the second fatal plane crash in Indiana this year in which local approach controllers in Terre Haute, Ind., should have been guiding the aircraft, but instead, the Federal Aviation Administration switched control to Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center because the Terre Haute Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) was closed for the night.

Indiana air traffic controllers, after having fully reviewed the circumstances of both incidents, today expressed their deep frustration and concern over their belief that they represent the worst-case scenario that has emerged because of the FAA's decision to transfer control away from the appropriate TRACON, to the center, and thus has degraded the margin of safety. They believe this accident, and the accident earlier this year at the Bloomington, Ind., airport, which led to the deaths of five IU graduate students, were the result of the reduced quality of air traffic services available to the pilots due to FAA financial decisions in closing Terre Haute Approach Control at night. 

"The FAA has allowed the staffing level at Terre Haute to be significantly reduced," said Laurie Krumwiede, local facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at the Terre Haute Tower and TRACON. "A few years ago we had 19 fully certified controllers and three trainees. Today Terre Haute is staffed with only 13 fully certified controllers. As a result, FAA management said it couldn't support a recent agency decision that requires it to have two controllers staff the midnight shift (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.). Instead, in February, the FAA started turning over the approach control portion of the operation to Indy Center during the midnight hours while one controller at Terre Haute Tower worked the airport operations during these hours." 

Said Dave O'Malley, local NATCA facility representative at Indy Center: "The controllers at Indy Center are among the best and most dedicated in the world. However, we don’t have the radar accuracy or experience with local approach operations that the controllers at Terre Haute have. On top of that, center controllers don’t receive the kind of extensive training for approach operations that true approach controllers receive. 

In fact, a recently retired Indy Center controller said he received updated training materials on approach operations which were intended to bring him up to speed on conducting such operations. This consisted of approximately 45 minutes in front of a computer work station, reading about procedures and phraseology. “This was no comparison whatsoever to the extensive, on-the-job training and years of experience provided to approach controllers for working these operations at this most critical time of flight,” O’Malley said. “Terre Haute controllers have over 25 years experience providing radar services to these local airports." 

The transfer of Terre Haute's TRACON to Indy Center is also a poor allocation of resources, NATCA believes, because the controllers at Indy Center are very busy during the mid-shift hours with freight traffic. Requiring a center controller to also provide approach control services during these times will result in degraded service to one user or another. "That’s why our system of delegated responsibilities and redundancies and our division of labor was developed and has been the world’s safest and best," said NATCA Great Lakes Regional Vice President Bryan Zilonis. “Unfortunately, given the FAA's current philosophy of cutting costs by reducing controller staffing levels, consolidating services, and not making overtime available where staffing shortages exist, we are seeing the system become unsafe and we fear we will see more lives lost." 

Continued Zilonis: "We have looked at the information from both accidents, at Bloomington and Lawrenceville, that we got from active controllers. And we have reached the conclusion that the absence of an experienced approach controller at Terre Haute TRACON working these flights definitely had an impact on these events," Zilonis said. 

NATCA believes the safest, quickest and simplest solution to this situation is to return responsibility for this airspace to the controllers at Terre Haute. "This is where such responsibilities belong and is the reason this facility was established," Krumwiede said. "They are easily the best qualified to provide these critical services. However, additional staffing is desperately needed as most daytime and evening shifts are staffed below our minimum staffing level."

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