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Phoenix Tower/TRACON Understaffing Compromises Safety, Diminishes Benefits of New Tower - (4/12/2007)

CONTACT: Kevin Van Uden, Phoenix TRACON, 480-620-2470; Steve Palmer, Phoenix Tower, 602-540-7256 

The Federal Aviation Administration officially dedicated a new air traffic control tower on Wednesday at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Unfortunately, the Agency won’t be able to take full advantage of this beautiful new tower because it is losing far more controllers at the tower and adjacent radar room (Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON) than it is hiring and the resultant fatigue and stress on remaining controllers is reducing the margin of safety.

On Dec. 31, 2003, Phoenix TRACON had 76 air traffic controllers on board.  Today, the TRACON has 53 controllers, including four trainees. In that span, there have been 12 transfers, 11 retirements, three resignations and one termination. To offset these losses, the FAA brought in three (3) trainees. Yes, three. Twenty-seven losses and three additions in the past 39 months.  “If there are more trainees on the way, the FAA is keeping it a secret because they are not here yet and if they do arrive, it will take them two years to fully certify before they can work,” said Kevin Van Uden, Phoenix TRACON facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “We have up to a dozen controllers that will be able to retire between now and January. The Agency will not have their replacements ready – if they have hired them yet at all – until 2009. That is a big problem. The staffing crisis is well underway here in Phoenix.” 

In the Phoenix control tower, there are 33 fully certified controllers on board. One is serving with the National Guard in Afghanistan. There are 10 trainees on board. Overall, it is better staffed than the TRACON. But of the 31 controllers, 13 can retire by the end of this year and another three can retire in 2008.  

Despite the new equipment being installed in the new tower, there have been no changes to separation standards between arriving and departing flights and no new runways built at Sky Harbor. Thus, capacity is unchanged by this new tower. Said Van Uden: “Traffic volume has stayed relatively steady while staffing levels have dramatically decreased.  Our facility does not have enough personnel to provide the level of service to the system users that they should be getting.  As staffing continues to dwindle and volume continues to be steady, something has to give.  Safety will be compromised at some point as a result of poor staffing. The FAA did not plan appropriately for the attrition problem.   

Both Van Uden and Palmer cited the FAA’s imposed work rules last September as an extremely negative force in the control facilities. Morale has dramatically decreased and work and pay rules are providing incentives for controllers to retire as soon as they are eligible instead of working to the age 56 mandatory retirement.  “We have lost a great deal of experience and will continue to do so,” Van Uden said. “The system is suffering. Technology will not make that better.”

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