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Busy Washington Center Radar Controller Twice Asks for Help and Is Denied By Management; Result Is Two Planes Come Too Close - (10/2/2008)

LEESBURG, Va. – An overloaded Washington Center air traffic controller struggling to handle a dozen planes in challenging conditions twice asked Federal Aviation Administration management officials at the facility last Sunday for help but was denied. After 10 minutes of fighting through the intense traffic rush by himself, the controller made a serious error and two regional jets got much closer than FAA rules allow in the latest episode of understaffing affecting safety at a major radar facility.

The error was classified as Category B by the FAA, the second-most serious classification. It was the 340th Category A or B error of the 2008 fiscal year, which ended just 48 hours later, on Sept. 30. The FAA’s own acceptable limit for A and B operational errors as of Sunday was 327.

The aircraft involved were a Republic Airlines Embraer regional jet and a US Airways regional jet, headed to Manchester, N.H., and Providence, R.I., respectively. The Republic jet was at 19,000 feet altitude while the US Airways jet was at 19,200 feet. At their closest point, controllers estimate they were just over three miles apart laterally.

At 3:50 p.m. EDT, the controller was working alone at their radar position without the assistance of a “D-side” controller, which is a position responsible for handling coordination issues involving flights between different airspace sectors and also different facilities.

The controller was holding traffic destined to enter New York Center’s airspace, which borders Washington Center due to delays in the New York area. The controller was also issuing re-routing instructions to aircraft. At that point, the controller first asked for help from an FAA manager that is qualified on this particular sector and could have worked as a “D-side.” But the manager refused. Five minutes later, the controller asked a different manager for help but still did not get the desired “D-side.”

After 10 more minutes of trying to fight through the difficult conditions, the error occurred. The controller was removed from the position and the operational error was processed.

Washington Center’s staffing problems are well documented. Most recently, in August, an FAA log for the facility indicated “insufficient staffing for normal operations.”

Staffing was so bad over the busy summer months that by June, management told NATCA that it had already exhausted its annual overtime budget.

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