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2008: Another Year of FAA Failure on Key Safety Issue - (12/31/2008)

WASHINGTON – Burdened by an increasingly inexperienced workforce and a continuation of failed staffing and labor relations policies, the Federal Aviation Administration has admitted that not only did it fail in fiscal year 2008 to meet its own performance goals for one of its most critical safety issues – incidents involving planes getting too close – but the agency is off to a poor start to the new fiscal year as well.

Acting FAA Administrator Robert A. Sturgell, writing in a fourth quarter FY08 report to employees, in the “How are we doing?” section, states, “For Operational Errors, the year ended with a rate of 2.31, missing our target not to exceed 2.15 per million activities. Terminal facilities had 239 category A&B operational errors versus their performance limit of 193.”              

Terminal facilities are airport towers and radar approach control facilities. Category A&B errors are the most serious and pose the greatest risk of aircraft colliding.              

To read the FAA’s performance report for FY08, please go to: http://www.faa.gov/about/plans%5Freports/Performance/              

FY09 began on Oct. 1, 2008 and just three months later, the agency is now reporting that it has failed to meet its performance target for operational errors once again. In a Dec. 30, 2008 “FAA Today” report, the FAA says that from Oct. 1 through Dec. 29, it logged 80 Category A&B operational errors. The agency’s performance limit for that period was 70.              

To read this “FAA Today” report, please go to: https://employees.faa.gov/org/linebusiness/ato/news/faa_today/media/2008_12_30_faa_today.pdf   

This safety crisis is attracting increased Congressional attention and concern. On Monday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sent a letter to Transportation Secretary-designee Ray LaHood, saying that a chronic shortage of air traffic controllers in Southern California poses an alarming risk to air safety in the region and that there were six serious incidents this year that put planes very close to one another. Wrote Feinstein: “I believe that the current staffing situation represents a serious accident waiting to happen.   

“The Southern California TRACON handles more flights than any TRACON in the world, and its operational errors are way up. For instance, in November, a controller mistake put a Southwest Airlines jet and an Alaska Airlines jet on a collision course while both planes were maneuvering to land in San Diego. … In June, European airlines reported dramatic spikes in the number of anti-collision warnings around international airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Newark and elsewhere.”   

Controller shortages are causing unsafe conditions at other locations as well. Last Saturday, an FAA supervisor at the radar facility at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, N.Y., ordered a controller to work 13 straight hours due to a staffing shortage. Federal air regulations mandate no more than 10 hours for a single shift.   

The FAA, in several internal documents this year, has stated that trainees and the increasing inexperience level of its controller workforce are two of the biggest reasons for the rise in operational errors.   According to NATCA’s research, the workforce now includes more than 4,000 trainees, a whopping 27 percent that exceeds the level that the DOT Inspector General says is the maximum for facilitating an effective and efficient training process.   

The FAA is failing badly in its efforts to replace departing experienced controllers with fully certified trainees. Of the 2,628 total terminal (airport towers and TRACONS) employees hired in the last three fiscal years that were still on board as of Sept. 30, 2008, only 520 have completed training and are fully certified (20 percent). And of the 1,852 total en route center employees hired in the last three fiscal years that were still on board as of Sept. 30, 2008, only 198 have completed training and are fully certified (11 percent).

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