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FAA Pouring Overtime Money into Atlanta TRACON, Closing Sectors of Airspace to Cover for Staffing Shortages - (6/21/2007)

CONTACT:     Jim Allerdice, Atlanta TRACON, 678-485-0852 

PEACHTREE CITY, Ga. – The Atlanta Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility is so short-staffed that Federal Aviation Administration management officials were forced to spend approximately $865,000 in overtime from October 2006 to March of this year to cover for staffing shortages, nearly seven times the amount of overtime spent in the same six-month period in 2005-06.

There are 71 fully certified controllers currently on board, but four are not working due to long-term medical conditions. Six of these veteran controllers are eligible to retire by the end of this year. There are 22 trainees in the facility, but none of them will be fully trained and able to work traffic before the end of this year, offering no relief in the near future. Five of these trainees are what the FAA calls “certified professional controllers in training,” (CPCIT) meaning they have prior experience as fully trained controllers at other facilities before transferring to Atlanta TRACON, where they are now forced to re-certify. 

FAA officials have also decided, beginning this Sunday, June 24, to close one large sector of Atlanta airspace one hour early every night and a second large sector of airspace two hours early every night due to staffing shortages, which the agency is now calling a “resource management problem” (see FAA memo attached to this release).  

Until March, the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association agreed there should be 104 controllers on staff to safely and efficiently run the operation at Atlanta TRACON. But the FAA threw out that number in March, replacing it with a new “range” of 80-98 controllers it deemed acceptable, but has failed to produce any documentation or studies to show how it arrived at this range and why it needed fewer controllers to handle what has been a four-fold increase in recent years in the amount of airspace that Atlanta TRACON controllers are responsible for. Because the FAA, in determining staffing totals against its new “range,” only counts fully trained controllers and CPCITs, it is four controllers short of meeting even the low end of its own range, a glaring admission that the staffing crisis has reached a critical level. 

“The FAA likes to say they are ‘staffing to traffic,’ but we have taken on hundreds of square miles of airspace in our coverage area and yet have less staffing now than when we were responsible for a smaller amount of airspace,” said Jim Allerdice, Atlanta TRACON facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.  

There is also more traffic to move than ever. On Wednesday, Atlanta TRACON controllers worked with their equally understaffed Atlanta Tower counterparts to set a record by moving 3,096 flights into and out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. At its peak, controllers handled 207 flights in one hour, a staggering total that left controllers pushed to their physical and mental limits. Making things worse in recent weeks, 70-80 percent of the controllers are working six-day weeks or 10-hour days (two hours of overtime on top of regular eight-hour day), including many held over for two hours past the end of their grueling shifts recently on days of heavy thunderstorm activity that wreaked havoc on the operation. 

“We were already working six-day weeks and 10-hour days and then you throw the thunderstorms on top of that and you end up with extremely stressful and heavy, complex traffic periods,” Allerdice said. “Having to do that for extended periods of time wears on you.”

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