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Rushed Training at Understaffed FAA Chicago Facility Jeopardizes Safety - (3/19/2008)

CONTACT:     Jeffrey D. Richards, NATCA Chicago Center Facility Representative, 630-544-1372 

AURORA, Ill. – Rushing to desperately cover up a staffing shortage that has left the nation’s fourth-busiest radar facility with a 14-year low total of fully trained controllers on staff, Federal Aviation Administration managers at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center are pushing new hires through an expedited training program that compresses three years of material into a five-month period. As a result, these new hires are being forced into brutally difficult radar positions without the needed knowledge, experience and seasoning that comes with a carefully crafted and comprehensive training process.
“The FAA calls it ‘functional training,’ pushing these inexperienced trainees through a vigorous training program in a minimal amount of time, in an effort to keep up with an exodus of controllers that the FAA underestimated,” says Jeffrey Richards, NATCA’s Chicago Center facility representative. “I think we are headed down a dangerous path of certifying individuals to be controllers before they are truly ready.”
Calling it “dysfunctional training,” Richards pointed to a dangerous trend where the expedited training program is forcing both trainees and experienced controllers into making mistakes that have allowed aircraft to get closer than FAA rules allow. Already in the 2008 fiscal year that began last October, Chicago Center has had 17 operational errors and two incidents called “proximity events” by the FAA; less serious breaches of separation rules which the FAA no longer counts as errors in an effort to hide the true safety risk occurring in our nation’s skies. The FAA’s desired goal for errors in FY08 is 19, not including proximity events. Chicago Center is poised to shatter this mark with half the fiscal year left to go, including the busy spring/summer travel period.
The latest incident occurred on March 13. An American Trans Air 737 and a Compass E170 jet, both inbound to Chicago Midway Airport, came within 4.7 miles laterally, with just 700 feet of altitude between them. FAA rules mandate separation of at least five miles or 1,000 feet. Both aircraft were under the control of a trainee, working the airspace west of Joliet, Ill. The error occurred because two radar positions were combined into this one due to short staffing and the need to complete this training, which takes at least one fully trained controller to perform.  
“Because the FAA does not have the luxury of time to train the next generation of air traffic controllers,” Richards said, “it has concocted an unsafe and unrealistic training program which compresses a process that was safe, time-tested and effective.”
The FAA has been testing functional training for the past two years at Chicago Center. Local FAA management is currently working under a waiver from FAA Headquarters. The traditional training program allows the trainee to gain experience on positions in which they are certified. Functional training pushes the trainee to the next position with no time to perfect the skills they have learned. This creates a situation in which the trainee could be certified at a position and then not see that position for months afterwards, losing their proficiency, according to Richards.
Chicago Center is responsible for the movement of aircraft over a seven-state area in the Midwest, extending from central Iowa to the Indiana/Ohio border, south to central Illinois and north into central Wisconsin.

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