Air Traffic Controllers Declare a Staffing Emergency in Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Southern California - (1/10/2008)
CONTACT: Doug Church, 202-220-9802; 301-346-8245 (cell)
WASHINGTON – The nation’s air traffic controllers, faced with a 10 percent loss of their workforce in the last year, a record pace of new losses this year and worsening stress and fatigue levels that have drawn the critical eye of two major government watchdogs, are declaring a staffing emergency in four key areas of the country with some of the busiest airspace in the world: Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Southern California. A staffing emergency means that controllers do not have enough trained and experienced personnel on the ground to safely handle the volume of traffic in the air and at major airports.
NATCA is projecting that by Feb. 3 – just one-third of the way into the 2008 fiscal year – 500 controllers will have retired already, with 2,200 more controllers able to retire by year’s end. There have been 357 retirements so far since October 1, 2007, including 201 on Jan. 3 alone. Another 130 have told NATCA they intend to retire by Feb. 3 due to the lack of any incentive to stay on the job. The current trend, if it continues, will shatter the FAA’s projection of 695 retirements this fiscal year and perhaps even the record of 856 retirements set in fiscal year 2007.
“An already dangerous situation is about to get worse,” said NATCA President Patrick Forrey. “An additional 2,200 experienced controllers will be able to retire by the end of this year, thinning the already-depleted ranks of the workforce at a time when the skies have never been more congested. The GAO has already stated that the risk of a catastrophic accident on our runways around the nation is high. Without an adequate amount of rested, well-trained controllers in towers and radar facilities, the risk of an aviation accident now includes the airspace as well as the ground.”
Forrey is calling on the FAA and the Department of Transportation to act immediately to stem the loss of veteran controllers and bolster the workforce in Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Southern California. These are among the worst-staffed in the country and have suffered a disturbing rash of runway and airspace incidents in recent weeks and months. Below are the leading reasons why controllers are declaring a staffing emergency in selected cities:
- The General Accountability Office released a study last month that cited 30 runway incursions at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in the past four years, the fifth most of any U.S. airport. There were 11 controller errors in 2007, including one involving a Delta flight that blew out its tires in aborting a takeoff into incoming traffic headed to an adjacent, parallel runway. Both controllers involved in the incident had recently worked overtime shifts.
- The GAO said 52 percent of controllers at Hartsfield Tower regularly work six-day weeks. Overtime usage to cover for staffing shortages rose from $419,000 in fiscal year 2006 to $1.015 million in fiscal year 2007.
- At the Atlanta Terminal Radar Approach Control, controllers have been working mandatory overtime for nearly two years. Overtime usage rose from $603,000 in fiscal year 2006 to $1.92 million in fiscal year 2007.
- Staffing at Atlanta TRACON has fallen to 68 fully certified controllers from 76 a year ago. The FAA’s own data indicates that this facility has more flights per controller than any facility in the United States.
- At Atlanta Center, the nation’s busiest facility, there are 279 fully certified controllers on staff, down from over 400 five years ago. Approximately 70 are eligible to retire this year. Overtime is mandatory and total dollar amounts have doubled FAA projections this past year.
- There were a record 56 close calls at Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control in Elgin, Ill., due to controller error in 2007. The previous high was 28 in 2006.
- At Chicago Center in Aurora, Ill., from October 2007 through December 2007, serious close call incidents caused by controller errors more than doubled the FAA’s mandated limit for the entire fiscal year. Controller positions have been combined while some of these errors have happened, due to short-staffing. Additionally, the number of errors that occurred during training have risen.
- The Department of Transportation Inspector General announced this week it will formally investigate the controller working conditions at Chicago O’Hare Tower, Chicago TRACON and Chicago Center, which handles all flights in airspace from Iowa to Indiana. This is in response to a request last month by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. The IG is expected to look at key factors that could contribute to controller fatigue. The National Transportation Safety Board has cited fatigue as a potential contributing factor to the recent errors.
- In a reply to a Congressional inquiry, the FAA stated it had only 76 fully trained and certified controllers on staff at Chicago TRACON, 21 below the FAA’s own staffing target of 97. At least 20 more will be needed (117) when the O’Hare Modernization Phase 1 is implemented this November.
- The GAO study last month showed that O'Hare had the second-highest number of near-collisions on runways between 2001 and 2006.
- There are only 46 fully certified controllers at O'Hare Tower. That is 25 short of what is needed, not to mention what will be needed to staff a second tower as part of the O’Hare Modernization Phase 1.
- The number of fully trained and certified controllers at JFK Tower has dropped 42 percent since 2001 while traffic has increased 40 percent. There are now just 22 fully certified controllers on staff. Of those, eight must retire this year and another four will reach retirement eligibility.
- Controller errors at the New York TRACON in Westbury, N.Y., rose 27 percent last year from fiscal year 2006.
- At New York Center in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., controller errors hit a three-year high of 66, including 10 that occurred during on-the-job training.
- The number of fully certified and experienced controllers at Southern California TRACON (SCT), which handles all flights going in and out of the major airports in the entire region, has dropped 40 percent since 2004 and now stands at 159.
- With staffing numbers at SCT well below that needed to provide adequate rest and recuperation time for controllers between shifts, almost 85 percent of them are now regularly working six-day weeks. In 2007, many controllers logged well over 40 days of overtime. The amount of overtime the FAA has paid controllers to cover for staffing shortages has risen from $261,000 in 2004 to $4 million in 2007.
- FAA management officials last week were forced to slow down traffic heading into Orange County, Long Beach and Ontario, Calif., airports due to short staffing at SCT.
- At Los Angeles Center in Palmdale, Calif., the on board staffing is 310. One out of every three is a trainee and many are only getting less than an hour per week of on-the-job training as they move through a 3-4-year process to become a fully certified controller. This large amount of trainees and the resources required to train them are taxing the system.
- L.A. Center has the highest rate of serious operational errors (category A and B errors, as defined by FAA) in the country, per million flights, among en route centers (9.11; second is Chicago Center at 8.45).
- LAX has had a number of close calls over the last 18 months, including one last August in which two aircraft carrying nearly 300 people came within 37 feet of each other. There are 33 controllers in the tower today, compared to 46 in the years when fewer close calls occurred. Controllers must work an average of 2.3 overtime shifts a month to compensate for the short staffing. On Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council affirmed NATCA’s position, voting 14-0 in a call for the FAA to fully staff the tower.
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