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Close Calls at Cincinnati Air Traffic Facility Call Into Question Controller Fatigue, Staffing and Equipment Failure - (5/8/2008)

CONTACTS:  Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Tower Facility Representative Jason Hubbard, (859) 512-3099; NATCA National Office, Alexandra Caldwell, 202-220-9813, acaldwell@natcadc.org

 

CINCINNATI – Three serious incidents in recent weeks have brought major staffing and equipment issues to light at the air traffic control tower for Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International. 

Last Friday two planes were lined up to land on the same runway.  The first aircraft changed course but was instructed to turn too soon by a Certified Professional Controller (CPC) and ended up crossing in front of the other plane and violated separation requirements.  The CPC involved in this close call had just completed a six-day work week and is in the top-half of controllers with overtime usage. 

Last Wednesday a regional jet was permitted to take off too soon behind a departing Boeing 757.  The RJ got too close and only narrowly avoided the wake turbulence of the 757.  Total required staffing for that day was 21 – four short, at only 17, the facility had to combine positions meaning fewer eyes were watching airspace.

At the end of March a plane had to abort a landing in heavy fog because there were two planes crossing on the runway designated for the plane to land.  The CPC directing the plane was on overtime (that being his sixth shift of the week), was working without an assistant controller and without a ground radar warning system – designed to generate an alert for an occupied runway should an airplane try to land on it.  The long range back up radar is 72 miles away and due to line of site  and the natural curvature of the earth, didn’t provide coverage at the lower altitudes close to the airport that were needed.  This caused numerous delays, cancellations and safety concerns as controllers could not see aircraft under their control.

"We've been sounding the alarm for some time about the immediate and cumulative effects of short-staffing and fatigue and how those factors ultimately lead to controller mistakes.  These incidents at CVG -- made worse by an episode of failing equipment -- point to yet another safety lapse on the part of FAA management," NATCA President Patrick Forrey said. "The NTSB and the GAO have both warned of catastrophic consequences resulting from fatigue. Now, the FAA is considering canceling vacation time for controllers this summer travel season to deal with short-staffing, which will deprive controllers of the breaks they so desperately need away from this grueling job. This is a recipe for disaster."

Over the past two years CVG opened a third runway and made major airspace changes that necessitated nine additional positions.  However the facility has lost 24 veteran controllers over the past three years, going from 84 to only 60.  By the end of 2008, 24 more veteran controllers will be eligible to retire, 18 of which could leave now – leaving behind 15 trainees nowhere close to certification with at least a year left in training.

The facility’s operational errors and deviations - mistakes where aircraft violate separation minimums resulting in aircraft coming closer to one another than FAA rules allow or stray into another controller’s airspace – have increased from 6 in 2006 to 11 in 2007.  This includes proximity events (PEs) – a classification of separation loss which the FAA has re-baselined to suggest operational errors at a facility are much smaller.  There have already been four OEs and four ODs (including PE's), one of which involved a trainee, only five months into 2008.

Said Facility Representative Jason Hubbard:  “What the FAA continually tells people is that we are hiring controllers.  We do not hire controllers; we hire people and make them controllers in three to four years.  Put together the fact that our most experienced controllers are retiring as soon as they’re eligible to do so with the fact that we have a faulty radar system that the FAA refuses to fix until it completely fails and the safety of those flying in and out of this airport is at risk.”

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