The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) no longer has a culture of safety as it did before the “rotted bureaucracy” under former administrator Marion Blakey, who retired last year, and the current acting administrator Robert Sturgell, who continues to carry on her policies, according to allegations made by Mike Foote, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) union president for the LAX tower air traffic controllers.
Foote made the allegations during his presentation at the Westchester/Playa del Rey Neighborhood Airport Relations Committee meeting Thursday, June 26th, at the LAX soundproofing office in Westchester.
Foote said that “in the old days,” there were controllers in Washington, D.C. that interfaced with the FAA and provided contact with controllers nationwide, but no longer.
Foote noted the failure of the Federal Aviation Administration to notify controllers nationwide of a new aircraft identification designation of an All Nippon Airways Boeing 777-300 (new designation B77W), resulting in the Boeing being directed to the wrong taxiway on Thursday, June 19th, causing what he described as “a runway incursion and operation error” when an MD80 landed behind the Boeing, rolled past it.
Aircraft longer than 239 feet are precluded from using Taxiway AA between runways 24R and 24L, and while there was no chance of the aircraft colliding, according to FAA officials, the runway was too short to accommodate that aircraft.
Ian Gregor, FAA spokesman for the Western-Pacific Region, told The Argonaut, “This appears to be a unique situation. The problem didn’t involve a change in aircraft data tags. Rather, it’s a situation where an aircraft for some reason showed up on LAX radar scopes with a new, international data tag instead of the standard US data tag. Normally a 777-300 shows up as ‘B773’ on radar. This aircraft showed up as ‘B77W’.
“We don’t know why the plane arrived with the international data tag. It had not happened before at LAX and I’m not aware of any similar occurrences in other parts of the country. However, the FAA is investigating whether such problems have arisen elsewhere.”
Foote responded to Gregor’s comments, saying this type of incident has happened before at LAX and that the controllers and FAA “had a go-around because of this.”
“I still haven’t heard an explanation as to why they classified the incident as a ‘non-occurrence’ on Friday, June 20th and did not classify it as a runway incursion until Tuesday, June 24th after we called the US Department of Transportation inspector general,” said Foote.
Foote said that “the new ‘W’ designation is an international thing and it had been going on for at least ten days before this incident and no one saw fit to tell us.”
“The answer is, they covered it up and then got caught, so had [they] to reclassify,” Foote alleged.
At the committee meeting, Foote discussed what he called the shortage of qualified air traffic controllers, as well as his thoughts on improving runway safety, moving the northern runway and other issues concerning LAX safety.
He claimed that the FAA does not accept exhaustion as an excuse for sick leave and that controllers might work until 10 p.m. and be expected back at 6 a.m.
He told the Airport Relations Committee that new controllers at LAX get paid approximately $38,000 and many live in outlying areas such as Palmdale, driving in to work at LAX because they and their families can’t afford to live nearby.
Controllers that started at smaller airports like Burbank are considered “new hires” and make a beginning salary at LAX, hardly an incentive for them to come here to work under these types of conditions at such a busy airport, said Foote.
On Friday, June 20th, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California asked the Department of Transportation to review air traffic controller staffing at LAX and two major radar control facilities in California, voicing her concern about the looming shortage of qualified controllers. The transportation department confirmed that the reviews would begin in June.
The Department of Transportation’s inspector general will review staffing and training at the LAX control tower, Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (So. California TRACON) in San Diego and the Northern California Terminal Radar Approach (No. California TRACON) near Sacramento.
Asked if Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA, the city airport agency that operates LAX) or FAA officials had requested input from the air traffic controllers at LAX about safety issues or suggestions that would assist in operational improvements at the airport, Foote said the controllers had not been consulted.
Foote said a “Safety versus Staffing Study” covering 2000 to 2007 showed that the occurrence of runway incursions and surface incidents during short staffing and near full staffing varied greatly.
“The biggest difference between a runway incursion and a surface incident is timing.” Foote said. “For example, if an Airbus 320 crosses a runway when they’re not supposed to and a Boeing 747 is rolling down that runway for takeoff, slams the brakes and pulls up ten feet short, that’s a runway incursion. Obviously the scenario does not need to end with the 747 stopping before it reaches the Airbus.
“In a surface incident, the same Airbus crosses the same runway, but the controller cancels the takeoff clearance before the Boeing begins to roll.
“As demonstrated, the main difference between the two is simply luck and timing.
“Anytime someone crosses a runway when they are not supposed to it’s a dice roll as to where aircraft are in relation to each other. With that in mind, any incident involving the integrity of the runway safety zone has the chance of becoming fatal.”
Foote added, “Despite several high-profile runway incursions at LAX, the true scope of the problem did not reveal itself until after December of 1999. It was at that point that a problem with under-reporting runway incidents at LAX was revealed.”
He said the best-documented of these was an incident in early December 1999 where the LAX tower manager allegedly ordered a supervisor not to report an incident because the manager felt it was not severe enough.
“After the event, several news stories were written and whether it was deliberate or simply a lack of understanding, the reporting at LAX changed,” Foote said.
According to FAA records, the years LAX was short-staffed on controllers were 2000, 2001 and 2007. The years LAX was at or near full staffing were 2002 through 2006, said Foote.
According to controller records and incursion data, during the years LAX was short-staffed there was an average of 22.33 combined runway incursions and surface incidents. Up to the writing of this report, there were still three months to go in 2007 and 21 incidents had been reported, Foote said.
During the years when LAX was at or near full staffing, there was an average of 13.6 runway incursions/surface incidents, a difference of almost nine incidents per year, Foote said.
In June 2000, the FAA signed a document with the title “Los Angeles ATCT Assessment Final Report,” showing staffing at 34 certified controllers with an authorization number of 48, Foote said. The FAA negotiated a number of 47 with the union a few years later, but this is the historic range of what the FAA knows is required to run this facility, Foote asserted.
Prior to 2001, staffing level documentation was based on FAA letters signed by FAA managers that included the staffing numbers at the time the letters were written.
A second document is a memo from the manager at LAX Tower to the union dated February 5th, 2002. Approximately 19 months after the first letter, staffing had grown to 42 certified controllers. In that memo, the manager wrote in part, “Historically, LAX has been critically short staffed.” Later she continues, “As the number increases, LAX can staff positions properly to ensure safety,” Foote quoted.
“There can be no mistake that the FAA is fully aware of the relationship between safety and staffing here at LAX,” Foote said. “We even went an unprecedented 27 months without a single controller error.
“While having a rested and trained work force was very effective in reducing controller mistakes, controllers are often called upon to be the last thread in the safety margin. The same rested and trained work force became more effective in catching pilot errors in time to prevent them before safety was compromised.”
Foote then alleged, “Now, as the grind of overtime and working every shift well below the FAA’s guidelines has taken its toll over the past year, controllers are less proactive in preventing other’s errors and more worried about not making one themselves. Controllers are simply hanging on until they can retire and then they are leaving a job they used to love.”
Regarding the potential reconfiguration of the northern runway claimed by some to be for safety reasons, Foote said the move would include pushing Runway 24R 300 feet or more out into Westchester and cost between $500 million and $1 billion, “depending on whom you listen to.”
Foote said that for safety, the controllers support using the inboard runway for departures only, but the FAA requires that they allow landings on the inboard runway.
“While as air traffic controllers we are always ready to support and help on any modernization projects on the airport, when LAWA makes claims that this project is needed for safety reasons we feel that a comparison is appropriate,” Foote said.
In the comparison, Foote said it is necessary to understand what types of runway incursions and surface incidents could be reduced by diverting arrival aircraft onto a center parallel taxiway, seen as advantageous in helping to reduce the chance of an arriving aircraft exiting off Runway 24R and then not stopping in time to hold short of inboard runway 24L.
Written data for incursions and surface incidents are available only from 2001 to 2006, and over that period there was an average of one per year that could have been “reduced” or perhaps “prevented” with the addition of a center parallel, he said. If the data from 2007 is added in, that rate bumps up to 1.14, he said. That figure should be compared to the 8.73 per year that would statistically be reduced by staffing the control tower properly, Foote claimed.
“Controllers are not saying that placing a parallel taxiway between the north runways is not a safety improvement — it is,” Foote said. “We are not saying that all aircraft departing Runway 24L are airborne before Taxiway AA (approximately 8,000 feet down the runway with most departures airborne at that point) — they are not.
“What we are saying is that this very expensive improvement will bring far less in safety than simply attracting and retaining an experienced controller work force at LAX tower.”
Denny Schneider, president of Alliance For a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion and airport relations committee member, said, “It’s refreshing to hear direct talk from a controller that confirms that our concerns about tower staffing are well founded. I guess LAWA and the FAA are right, that there really is a safety issue. Now, if only they’d acknowledge the cause and proper solution.”
NASA STUDY CONTRACT — In other airport-relations business, Chad Molnar, field deputy and LAX liaison for City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the 11th District, reported that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has signed the contract for its part in completing models for simulation in the safety evaluation for LAX. NASA was asked to perform a study of LAX, but the agency said it would perform only a portion of the study, with six university professors knowledgeable in the field of aviation safety completing it.