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NATCA Warns of Air Traffic Safety Risks at Anchorage TRACON Due to Understaffing - (5/17/2007)

CONTACT:     Larry Lescanec, NATCA Anchorage TRACON Fac. Rep., 907-271-6743   

ANCHORAGE – The Federal Aviation Administration has allowed controller staffing at the Anchorage Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility to reach its lowest level in a decade.  

Currently, the TRACON is staffed with 16 fully certified, veteran controllers and 10 trainees, or developmentals as they are also called.  This places a strenuous training workload on the veteran controllers who spend a major portion of their time training the developmentals on live air traffic.  

Today, Anchorage TRACON is transitioning to new radar scopes and associated equipment.  Unfamiliarity with this new equipment, called STARS, adds to the controllers’ job complexity and risk of error.  STARS equipment replacement has been under construction for over a year.  FAA implementation plans call for construction to continue in the control room after controllers are working on the STARS equipment. Requests by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to delay STARS implementation until completion of all construction have been ignored. 

In the months leading to STARS implementation, FAA management at Anchorage reassigned five veteran controllers to supervisory and staff positions, despite NATCA objections.  This decision reduced staffing to 16 veterans.  Nine of these controllers are currently eligible for retirement.  

Five years ago, the Agency’s own staffing guidelines required 16 controllers per day to staff the facility. Although air traffic at Anchorage has increased in the last five years, it is now common to staff the facility with only 11 veteran controllers in a 24-hour period.  Impending controller retirements and management plans to reassign two more veteran controllers to staff positions in the near future will negate any gains to staffing realized by trainees achieving full performance level status.  

FAA management’s solution to this staffing shortage is mandatory overtime; a six-day work week often including two midnight shifts.  The facility has scheduled 80-90 hours of overtime per week in June.  During the summer months, air traffic at Anchorage increases significantly.  Controllers spend longer periods on position working more airplanes.  Controller fatigue is a major concern of NATCA and of the National Transportation Safety Board. 

The new STARS equipment, construction in the control room, the training burden, and the fatigue of six-day work weeks during the busiest traffic period of the year combine to create an unnecessary risk to air safety in the skies over Anchorage.  

In fact, on May 7, a controller error caused two passenger aircraft to pass 110 feet vertical and 0.74 miles apart at their closest proximity. 

“NATCA is concerned that errors such as this will become more frequent despite controller’s efforts to the contrary, due to the stress of the current situation at Anchorage TRACON,” said Larry Lescanec, President of the NATCA Anchorage TRACON Local.

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