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Six Operational Errors in Six Days at Memphis Center Alarms Controllers, Highlights Link Between Understaffing and Safety and Prompts FAA to Send Investigative Team to Facility - (8/21/2007)

CONTACT:     Ron Carpenter, NATCA Facility Representative at Memphis Air Route Traffic Control Center, 901-367-9624; rcarpentar@natca.net  

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Six operational errors occurred at the busy but understaffed Memphis Air Route Traffic Control center between Aug. 12-17, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to announce it was sending in a special investigative team to the facility – known as a “Tiger Team” – to look into the safety problems. 

An operational error is defined as two aircraft coming closer than FAA minimum separation rules allow. Three of the errors occurred in one area of the airspace that Memphis Center controllers work. Of these, one was an arriving flight into Memphis and the other an arriving flight into Little Rock, Ark. Training of new developmental controllers was involved in two of the other three errors. Memphis Center (ZME) is responsible for the safe flow of air traffic for over 100,000 square miles of airspace, covering Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and parts of Alabama and Kentucky. ZME controllers are responsible for over two million operations a year.  

Memphis Center was authorized by the FAA to have 354 controllers on staff for a safe staffing level before the agency imposed work and pay rules on NATCA one year ago and announced an unjustified, drastic reduction in the authorized number of controllers because it was unable to ever reach 354. Currently, there are 249 fully certified controllers staffing six areas 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These same controllers are also responsible for the on-the-job training for the 63 trainees currently working to achieve their certified professional controller (CPC) status.  

In the past, most areas were staffed on a daytime shift with 13-14 veteran controllers. If there were not that many controllers on duty, overtime was called in and leave for personal or vacation time was prohibited. But currently, most shifts are beginning with 8-9 controllers who are still tasked with training duties. At the beginning of the summer vacation period, overtime was scheduled and controllers were working six-day weeks. This overtime was used to cover training new controllers along with training veteran controllers on a new procedure. Fatigue set in, but, says NATCA ZME Facility Representative Ron Carpenter, “at least the coverage was there for the shifts.” 

However, Carpenter says, “during the week of August 5th, scheduled overtime was cancelled. Those same controllers are now forced to work with less people and sectors combined. Combining sectors means the controller is working twice the airspace they normally would be responsible to control.” On Saturday morning, August 18, in Area 6, there were five people scheduled to start the day with a total of 8 certified controllers by the end of the day. “In the past,” Carpenter said, “if there were not 11-12 controllers starting the day, overtime was called. In this case, management refused.” 

The facility continues to lose controllers to retirement. However, due to the lack of controller staffing, the FAA has stopped all promotions for controllers who take FAA supervisory positions. There are approximately four controllers scheduled to retire by the end of this year. Within the next two years, there will be approximately another 20-25 controllers eligible to retire.  

Additionally, taking into consideration the important need for staffing, the following incident occurred: A controller from the area that suffered the three operational errors was the victim of a fire at her home on Aug. 12. The controller was off work the next day, but called and requested to come back to work on the following day, Aug. 14. The controller informed FAA management that the only clothes she had that survived the fire damage were her jeans and a polo shirt that were in the dryer. FAA management informed her that she could not return to work until she had “business casual” clothes that conformed to a dress code that the FAA forced on controllers a year ago. Again, no overtime was called in to replace this controller even though there are other employees at the facility that are allowed to wear jeans as long as they are not air traffic controllers.

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