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Chicago Controllers Declare Safety Problem Sixth Serious Close Call Puts Facility over FAA-Mandated Limit for Incidents - (12/21/2007)

CONTACT:     Jeff Richards, Chicago Center NATCA Facility Representative, 630-544-1372; Bryan Zilonis, NATCA Great Lakes Regional Vice President, 630-542-5009 

AURORA, Ill. – Today, air traffic controllers at Chicago Center – the nation’s fifth-busiest facility – are declaring a safety problem after another close call in the skies gave the facility six serious incidents in just the past 11 weeks, eclipsing the limit of four for the entire 2008 fiscal year set by the Federal Aviation Administration with over nine months left to go. 

The latest incident occurred at 9:34 a.m. CDT on Wednesday morning. Southwest Airlines Flight 3757 was inbound to Midway Airport from St. Louis when it encountered a King Air 200 at the same altitude and headed toward the same horizontal point. The Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) aboard the Southwest jet sounded a warning to the pilots to descend, moments after the pilots received an expedited emergency descent instruction from a veteran controller who had to intercede to take command of the radio frequency from his trainee. The aircraft came as close as 3.11 miles horizontally. The incident happened in the skies 15 miles north of Springfield, Ill. 

“Quite simply, we do not have enough experienced controllers to handle the workload in our airspace with the margin of safety that is demanded from us every minute of every day,” said Jeff Richards, NATCA’s facility representative at Chicago Center. “Veteran controllers – at least the ones that haven’t left yet due to the FAA’s poor treatment and lack of a labor agreement – are so burned out and exhausted. They hate coming to work because they fear making a mistake that would put air travelers in extreme danger.” 

Compounding the problem created by the FAA’s refusal to keep veteran controllers on staff by giving them a labor agreement, Richards said, is the agency’s rush to certify trainees as controllers whether the individual is ready or not for the daunting task of controlling airplanes alone in an extremely stressful environment like Chicago Center. 

Chicago Center has recently changed the way trainees are trained. The facility is now testing a new program called “functional training." Three FAA radar centers – Chicago, Houston and New York – have been issued waivers so that managers there can compress training that would have previously taken 36 months into a six-month period. 

“I see it every day. Trainees here are being rushed into positions they are not ready to handle because FAA management has no other way to staff this facility,” Richards said. “These trainees are also not getting the overall level of experience needed to become a qualified controller because the FAA doesn’t have time to wait for them to get the seasoning they need before the system completely collapses. They are being short-changed and it is unfair to them. For the FAA to not have addressed a retirement surge they have known about for 25 years is reckless behavior and it is impacting the safety of the system.”

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