Since 2000, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) has experienced an average of nearly nine fewer runway safety incidents a year in the years when air traffic control was fully staffed than in the years when it was short-staffed, a new air traffic controllers study has found.

According to the “Safety Versus Staffing Study” released by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) Monday, October 2nd, LAX experienced an average of 22.3 combined runway incursions and surface incidents a year in 2000, 2001 and this year — the years in which the LAX air traffic control tower was short-staffed.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association represents over 20,000 air traffic controllers, engineers, and other safety-related professionals.

While both runway incursions and surface incidents are considered runway safety incidents, the difference between the two is “timing,” and surface incidents are often not as serious, the study says.

Michael Foote, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association LAX Tower, noted that controller staffing in the tower increased from the early part of the decade and when the tower was fully staffed between 2002 and 2006, the number of runway safety incidents dropped to an average of 13.6 a year.

But this year — when controller staffing levels have once again dropped to a total of 33 certified controllers and ten trainees in the tower — the airport has already had 21 runway safety incidents reported, including eight runway incursions since October last year, Foote said.

Two of the runway incursions occurred at LAX in August, including one in which two jets reportedly came as close as 37 feet to colliding.

“It’s really a safety issue we’re pushing,” Foote said of the study. “If you attracted and retained experienced air traffic controllers, you will save 8.7 runway safety incidents a year,” Foote said.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesman Ian Gregor rejected those claims, saying the “vast majority” of the runway incursions at LAX in the last decade have been due to pilot error and not controller error.

“There’s no correlation whatsoever between controller staffing levels and runway incursions,” Gregor said.

Gregor further disputed the claims by adding that the airport has experienced fewer incursions today than a decade ago, when the control tower had more staffing. LAX has reported anywhere from six to ten incursions a year since 1998, Gregor said, but with surface incidents included, the Air Traffic Controllers Association has the numbers much higher, for example 25 in 2000, the first year of its study.

Of the 83 runway incursions at LAX since 1998, 67 were due to pilot error and 14 were controller error, Gregor said.

“NATCA can provide no evidence whatsoever that any of the runway incursions was due to any staffing issues,” he said.

Foote countered that in the years air traffic control was fully staffed, such as 2003 when there were 46 certified controllers, the number of safety incidents declined.

FAA officials have also argued that the LAX tower is currently properly staffed, with 47 air traffic controllers, including 36 fully certified controllers and 11 trainees.

Foote said that air traffic controllers are considered the “last line of defense” in preventing runway safety incidents and having a rested and trained workforce is very effective in reducing controller mistakes, as well as catching pilot errors.

But as staffing levels have dropped over the past year, the “overworked” controllers feel they are less proactive in preventing errors and have chosen to hang on until they can retire, Foote said.

“It’s not a good existence for us right now,” he said.

Controllers say that money planned for proposed airport projects such as the moving of the northern runways closer to Westchester and Playa del Rey could be better spent on controller staffing. The proposed project, reportedly expected to cost between $500 million and $1 billion, would end up saving approximately one runway incursion a year, based on data from 2001 to 2006 that showed one incursion would be reduced with the addition of a center parallel taxiway, the controller study said.

“Instead of spending $500 million to a billion dollars to fix one runway incursion a year, you could fix 8.7 a year if you just have the political will to fix the problems of air traffic controller staffing,” Foote said.

Gregor called that idea impractical, saying that the money Los Angeles World Airports, the Los Angeles city agency that operates LAX, would use for the north runway project would not come from the same fund used to pay controller salaries.

In response to the eight runway incursions reported at LAX since October last year, State Assemblyman Ted Lieu has called for the FAA to reduce the number of flights at LAX until all safety issues have been addressed.

Lieu has also recommended that the spacing between flights be increased and flights be shifted out of LAX to other regional airports.

Gregor called the assemblyman’s proposal impractical and said the two most recent runway incursions, in August, were not related to flight volume but rather the configuration of the runways.

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