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Schedule Change at Understaffed Kansas City International Airport Control Tower Will Decrease Margin of Safety, Unwisely Burden Fatigued Controllers - (1/24/2007)

CONTACT:     Kevin Peterson, 816-294-5519, ktbmp@stjoelive.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Air traffic controllers at the control tower and terminal radar approach control (TRACON) room at Kansas City International Airport, already working short 14 controllers now must contend with a new and unsafe situation: The FAA is going to force controllers at the end of the midnight shift to handle the heavy early morning traffic, instead of using fresh controllers who traditionally have started their shifts by working this morning “push.”

It is the fifth schedule change made by FAA managers in the past five months as they scramble to staff an understaffed facility.  Currently, the tower is staffed with 33 fully certified controllers. The FAA authorizes the tower to staff 47. 

There has always been an early morning “push,” at Kansas City, where a large number of aircraft depart between 5:45 and 6:30 a.m., heading out to the east and west coast major airports. Normally, this push was worked by controllers arriving early to relieve the controllers that had been awake all night and had worked two shifts over the previous 24 hours. These changes delay the arrival of fresh controllers until after the morning push is over.” 

“There has been a policy around for more than nine years, stating that the mid-shift personnel should be moved to a less busy position in the last two hours of the shift as soon as staffing and workload permits,’” said Kevin Peterson, the facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “Evidently, staffing no longer permits this at Kansas City.” 

Additionally, the FAA mandated a shift that starts at 3:45 a.m.  The person assigned this shift works several pushes throughout the morning at a time when they are the most fatigued. 

Even more disturbing, says Peterson, is that the FAA managers at the facility, who rarely ever witness the early morning traffic, conceived and implemented this new schedule without input from the controllers, all of whom work these shifts on a weekly rotation.  The schedule changes call into question the integrity of the FAA’s oft-stated current national position that it wants to ‘staff to traffic; “it’s really staff to budget.” 

In his official role as the NATCA representative, Peterson also made several requests with the FAA facility manager to discuss several issues surrounding these schedule changes. The manager’s response, paraphrased by Peterson, and indicative of the new authoritarian FAA management style since the agency imposed work rules on controllers last Labor Day was, “We don’t need to talk to you.”

"The important question to ask here is, ‘has someone considered the risk, and is it worth taking?’” Peterson said. “Controllers are very resilient. Some perform at their best under adverse conditions, but traffic volume and fatigue are different and the two don’t mix well. We are concerned that the safety of the flying public in Kansas City will now be subjected to hardships and pressures that could be avoided with proper staffing and reasonable scheduling practices.  They are willing to jeopardize safety to save a few bucks.”

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