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Understaffing Emerges as Serious Safety Concern for Cleveland Center Controllers at One of FAA's Busiest Facilities - (5/17/2007)

CONTACT:     Melissa Ott, NATCA Cleveland Center Facility Rep., 440-670-1650 

OBERLIN, Ohio – Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZOB), the country’s fourth-busiest Federal Aviation Administration facility, has lost 34 veteran controllers since the FAA imposed work rules on the controller workforce last September – eight percent of the entire controller staff in the building. Fourteen of those losses are controller retirements from March 31 through May 3 of this year.

The result has been the erosion of the margin of safety at the facility and has prompted local FAA management officials to begin to order controllers to work mandatory overtime and even stay working on radar positions for more than the two hours at a time; a benchmark that has long been recognized as the longest possible period that controllers should ever work to ensure safety and allow them adequate rest periods. 

The facility has 364 fully certified air traffic controllers on staff, according to National Air Traffic Controllers Association Facility Representative Melissa Ott, including 14 that are serving as temporary supervisors. There are nine employees that are transfers from other facilities training to be fully certified controllers at ZOB and, additionally, there are 39 trainees in various stages of their developmental process that can take between 2.5 years and three years. The FAA for many years agreed to staff the facility with 476 controllers, which NATCA believes is still the proper amount needed to ensure a safe and effective operation because of FAA statements before a Senate committee last week that “the demand for FAA services has never been greater.”  

However, as part of a wholesale reduction in staffing standards nationwide in March to reflect the reality of what the FAA actually had in its facilities – not what was actually needed – the agency announced that Cleveland Center’s new staffing “range” should be 306-374 controllers, a woefully inadequate number according to NATCA that is not based on any solid facts or research and is simply staffing to budget. 

“With only 39 trainees in the building and a loss of 34 veteran, experienced controllers in recent months, with many more veterans set to retire in coming days, weeks and months, it is clear that the FAA is losing the battle, and it’s travelers who will have to pay the price in the form of increased delays and a reduced margin of safety,” said NATCA President Patrick Forrey, a 23-year veteran controller at Cleveland Center before he assumed the NATCA presidency last September. 

According to Ott, the staffing shortage has forced FAA managers to make 650 forced schedule changes in the past month to try and meet minimum shift needs. In addition, an “80 percent rule” put in place by these managers has meant that eight of every 10 controllers in the building must be plugged in at all times, resulting in an imbalance of needed staffing levels for certain heavy volume periods of air traffic during the day and forcing many controllers to work more than two hours at a time, which increases fatigue levels and impacts controllers’ ability to remain focused and at maximum effectiveness. 

Staffing shortages at major U.S. air traffic control facilities is a worsening problem. The FAA has acknowledged in recent published reports that it cannot adequately staff its tower at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport – the world’s busiest – and nearby Atlanta Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), to even the agency’s artificially deflated new standards. The FAA has also finally stopped denying publicly that it forces controllers to work overtime against their will and recently admitted that in Atlanta, a portion of its overtime that supervisors assign to controllers to compensate for low staffing is indeed mandatory, which contributes significantly to a worsening controller fatigue problem that the National Transportation Safety Board reported last month was a serious safety concern.  

However, the FAA continues to ignore the facts and deny that staffing is a problem nationwide, content to staff to what it wants to spend, not what is necessary to safely and efficiently run a system that is still controlled by human beings who get sick, have loved ones who die or need care, or like to take earned vacation time to see their families and take a needed break from their high stress jobs. To prove it is staffing to budget and not to traffic, the FAA in March, refusing any controller involvement, reduced the staffing standards for its 314 facilities by nine to 26 percent from previously agreed-upon levels (they created a vague and inexplicable “range”), without any justification for how it arrived at those numbers or why it altered longstanding formulas for determining safe staffing levels.

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