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FAA Forced to Close Charleston, W.Va., Tower for 90 Minutes Due to Controller Staffing Shortage - (5/15/2007)

CONTACT:     Jim Ennis, NATCA Charleston, W.Va., Facility Rep., 304-444-8984  

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The Federal Aviation Administration last Friday, May 11, was forced to close the air traffic control tower at Yeager Airport in Charleston, W.Va. (CRW), for 90 minutes because it did not have enough controllers to staff the evening shift at the 24-hour facility. 

In the first hour of the tower being left uncontrolled by the FAA, there were 18 aircraft that taxied, landed, and departed the airport. Of the 18, nine were air taxis, eight were general aviation and one was a Lifeguard Healthnet Helicopter, which was delayed by the tower’s closing despite its urgency in needing to be accommodated because it was taking part in a rescue operation. 

“The pilots were expecting the tower to be open, with air traffic controllers guiding them safely in and out of this airport,” said Jim Ennis, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s facility representative at the Charleston tower and terminal radar approach control facility (TRACON).  “This was an extremely unsafe situation.” 

Because of the staffing crisis at CRW, almost every shift is scheduled with less than the minimum amount of controllers needed to perform the necessary duties. On Friday, Ennis was scheduled to work the evening shift with three other controllers. The shifts require at least five controllers to provide a safe and expeditious flow of traffic, as FAA orders require.  One of the scheduled controllers was forced to call in sick and a second left the facility due to illness before the end of their shift. Keep in mind that the medical standards for controllers are much higher than most other occupations. Controllers are prohibited from working if they're on most types of medication, including over-the-counter drugs like Sudafed. 

Overtime was authorized for the shift. However, only one controller was eligible to work overtime due to requirements for other shifts. At CRW, the FAA is using approximately 60-70 hours of overtime a week just to have a fighting chance to even approach its staffing needs, leaving few controllers available for any forced overtime when needed.  The result was that the evening shift crew was down to two controllers after 8 p.m. instead of the required five. Against the advice of Ennis, FAA managers ordered controllers to run the shift from the TRACON, thus making the tower uncontrolled.  

“We had no procedures and were not trained for this type of operation and some of the safety ramifications,” Ennis said.  “I recommended that we release our airspace to Indianapolis Center (making CRW a visual flight rules tower but nonetheless staffed by the two controllers on duty), as we have appropriate procedures and are trained for this type of operation. But I was overruled. 

“The next 90 minutes was complete chaos. We were short staffed, significantly busy, and now forced to come up with a game plan to do something we had neither procedures nor training to do. Due to closing the tower, many aircraft were put into an unsafe environment that included construction on and around the airport, safety equipment that was not monitored, a change in routine operations, local weather not available to aircraft on the ground nor disseminated via the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service), an inability to adjust the airfield lighting panel, unfamiliar aircraft operating on movement areas, etc.” 

In addition to the delay of a Healthnet helicopter (stationed at CRW) on an active rescue flight, another aircraft crossed the active runway while on approach frequency because they were lost and could not find the fixed base operator facility on the airport grounds to which they were trying to taxi. Yet another aircraft, an air taxi, was required to abort its landing because they received an unsafe glide slope indication. “We had no idea if the glide slope was operating correctly or not,” Ennis said. “The monitor is in the tower cab.”

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