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Air Traffic Controller Staffing at Houston TRACON Plummets While Workload Increases - (8/28/2007)

CONTACT:     Eric Owens, Houston TRACON NATCA facility representative; 832-372-9800 

HOUSTON – With historic levels of rainfall and the worst flooding in 50 years, the summer thunderstorm season has been especially brutal in Texas this year. Record flight delays and cancellations show this as the worst summer since 2000. There’s not much that can be done about delayed or cancelled flights caused by weather, but there is something that can be done about the health of our air traffic control system.  

Congress is poised to consider a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill within the next month, and most of the focus has been on modernizing the air traffic control system. Modernization is a key element to enhancing safety, efficiency, and capacity in the system, but Houston air traffic controllers say infrastructure and adequate numbers of air traffic controllers are just as vital. New technology and runways alone can’t make up for the men and women that form the backbone of the air traffic control system.  

Nationwide there are 1,100 fewer experienced controllers today than there were six years ago. At one of the busiest facilities in the country, the Houston Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), air traffic controller staffing continues to plummet. The TRACON is responsible for guiding airplanes within 50 miles of Houston. There are 55 fully certified controllers and 13 trainees, well below what controllers say is a safe staffing level – 83 – and even below the FAA’s arbitrarily reduced staffing standards for the facility.

Substantial overtime is used just to make ends meet. And with an aging workforce, many controllers are approaching retirement; 28 controllers will be eligible to retire by the end of this year – including 25 of the 55 experienced controllers. By the end of 2008, the number of retirement-eligible controllers reaches 38. 

Moreover, in a move that will further exacerbate the staffing problem, the FAA will transfer control of Beaumont airspace to the Houston TRACON on September 27 without additional staffing or adequate training. Not only will this create additional strain on an already understaffed facility, the transfer of Beaumont’s Airspace will actually cost taxpayers more without enhancing safety or service. 

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, hosted a public hearing on the proposed transfer of Beaumont Airspace in Port Arthur earlier this month. Despite Congressman Poe’s call for a public hearing, the FAA began a substantially altered and deficient training regime for Houston air traffic controllers one day in advance of the hearing. The FAA has subsequently failed to address the numerous issues aviation and community stakeholders, including Rep. Poe, aviation organizations, the community and local officials raised; choosing instead to move forward without first responding to stakeholders or without making a single modification to its plan to absorb Beaumont’s Airspace into Houston. 

With an exodus of veteran controllers and an increasing workload at Houston TRACON, the staffing situation isn’t going to improve in the near future. 


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