The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) declared a staffing emergency Thursday, January 10th, in four key areas of the country that include some of the busiest airspace in the world — Southern California, Atlanta, Chicago and New York — to bring attention to a ten percent loss of workforce last year, a record pace of expected new personnel losses in 2008 and increased stress and fatigue levels, said Doug Church, NATCA director of communications.
A staffing emergency means that controllers don’t have enough trained and experienced personnel on the ground to safely handle the volume of traffic in the air and at major airports, Church said.
FAA management officials last week were forced to slow down traffic heading into Orange County, Long Beach and Ontario airports due to short-staffing at Southern California TRACON (Terminal Control Center), which handles all flights going in and out of the major airports in the region, and the number of fully certified and experienced controllers at TRACON has dropped to 40 percent since 2004 and now stands at 159, said Church.
“L.A. Center (Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center) has the highest rate of serious operational errors (Category A and B, as defined by the FAA) in the country, per million flights, among en route centers — 9.11; second is Chicago at 8.45,” Church said.
National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Patrick Forrey has already called on both the FAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation to act immediately to stem the loss of veteran controllers and bolster the workforce in Southern California, Atlanta, Chicago and New York.
These key areas are among the “worst-staffed in the country and have suffered a disturbing rash of runway and airspace incidents in recent weeks and months,” according to Forrey.
“The GAO (Government Accountability Office) has already stated that the risk of a catastrophic accident on our runways around the nation is high.
“Without an adequate amount of well-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 said. “LAX [Los Angeles International Airport] has had a number of close calls over the last 18 months, including one last August in which two aircraft carrying nearly 300 passengers 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, and controllers must work an average of 2.3 overtime shifts a month to compensate for the short staffing.”
Opponents of the proposed reconfiguration of the northern runway at LAX by expanding a minimum of 340 feet north say that the increase of incursions involves pilot and controller error, and moving the runway does nothing to change the fact that an increasing number of airplanes are landing and taking off, and that the FAA’s “Next Generation” program that plans to escalate the density of flights and “reconfigure airspace” will only exacerbate runway incursions.
There were 12 incursions at LAX in 2007, according to information on a Web site provided by Raymond Jack, chief of airport operations.
On Friday, January 11th, Church told The Argonaut that “a very serious incursion occurred at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport at approximately 10:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, that morning.”
Church said that Atlantic Southeast Flight 876, a regional jet — a Delta connection carrier owned by SkyWest, Inc. according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — was instructed to hold short of Runway 27-right. The pilot correctly read back the instruction, but then proceeded to cross the runway without clearance.
“Doing so put the jet into the path of a departing Delta 757, Flight 261 to Mexico. The Delta jet was too far into its takeoff roll to stop before arriving at the intersection where the regional jet had crossed,” said Church.
The planes came within 1,250 feet (or about two to three seconds) of colliding, and the Atlantic Southeast jet continued on to Runway 28, where it departed,” said airline officials.
The Atlantic Southeast jet was carrying 44 passengers and the Delta flight had 130 passengers, said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.
Forrey projects that by February 3rd — one-third of the way into the 2008 fiscal year — 500 controllers nationwide will have retired, with 2,200 more controllers able to retire by year’s end. There have been 357 retirements since October 1st, and 201 retirements on January 3rd alone.
The GAO released a study in December that cited 30 runway incursions at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in the past four years, the fifth-most of any U.S. airport, with 52 percent of controllers regularly working six-day weeks, and totaling 11 controller errors in 2007, according to Church.
Church said that staffing at Atlanta TRACON has fallen to 68 fully certified controllers from 76 a year ago, and the FAA’s own data indicates that this facility has more flights per controller than any facility in the U.S.
According to Church, controller errors at the New York Center in Ronkonkoma hit a three-year high of 66, including ten that occurred during on-the-job training, and at JFK Tower, the number of fully trained and certified controllers has dropped 42 percent since 2001 while air traffic has increased 40 percent.
“An already dangerous situation is about to get worse,” said 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.
(See next page for a list of LAX runway incursions for 2007.)