U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California sent a letter December 29th to U.S Secretary of Transportation nominee Ray LaHood warning that a chronic shortage of air traffic controllers at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in San Diego “represents a serious accident waiting to happen.” LaHood is expected to be nominated to the post by President-elect Barack Obama.

“For years, the controller staffing situation has only become more severe,” Feinstein stated in her letter. “Retirements have outpaced projections, training goals have not been met, trainees have dropped out of the program at alarming rates, and the supply of available military-trained controllers has dried up.

“The status quo is a miserable failure that will threaten safety.”

Feinstein added, “In Southern California, the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] must take a new approach. I recommend the FAA immediately consider offering incentives to keep experienced controllers on the job, expand incentives to attract certified controllers from other regions, and alter the training system so that it is capable of efficiently training the massive influx of new controllers as quickly as possible.

“I am alarmed that staffing problems at these facilities have persisted for many years. For instance, the number of fully certified controllers at the Southern California TRACON dropped from 236 in 2004 to 164 in April 2008, prompting me to question the FAA administrator about this matter at a congressional hearing. I also asked the Department of Transportation inspector general to open an investigation, which he is conducting.”

On June 19th, Feinstein announced that she had secured a commitment from the Department of Transportation to review air traffic controller staffing at LAX, at the Southern California TRACON facility and the Northern California TRACON facility near Sacramento, launching an audit to gauge potential impact on aviation safety at these facilities.

The agency will also recommend ways that the FAA can improve air traffic controller staffing in the future, Feinstein said.

“I anticipate that the Department of Transportation’s inspector general will publish his findings and recommendations in the coming months for how to address this crisis,” she stated in her letter to LaHood. “I hope you will consider his recommendations seriously.

Feinstein added, “The LAX Tower is the fourth-busiest in the nation and it faces an ongoing runway incursion problem that has been attributed in part to controller fatigue. 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.

“The Wall Street Journal reported in November that six such incidents have occurred this year in the skies above Southern California.

“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.”

While onboard collision warning devices have warned the pilots to take evasive action, and disaster has been averted, “these incidents remind us that Southern California airspace demands the most experienced, most savvy controllers in the nation,” said Feinstein. “I am not confident that FAA’s current approach to staffing will meet these ongoing demands. Despite my concerns, there were fewer fully certified controllers on the job at Southern California TRACON in October (162) than at any time in recent history.

“Furthermore, although experts believe that FAA’s apprentice-based training system breaks down when more than 20 percent of controllers are still in training, 29 percent of the Southern California TRACON workforce is currently in training. In 2009, the facility is projected to be training nearly 100 trainees.”

The Daily Breeze reported in an article posted December 29th that FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said “that there were only three runway incursions at LAX in 2008, down from eight incursions in each year from 2005 to 2007.”

In fact, according to the online records of Raymond Jack, LAX operations manager, there were seven incursions at LAX in 2008, from January 1st to November 2nd; three incursions on the north runway and four incursions on the south runway. Details are available at lawa.org/uploadedfiles/air ops/pdf/Runway_Incursions_6 _7(2008).pdf /.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the 11th District, which includes LAX, told The Argonaut that he has been strong on the issue of understaffing at LAX “since day one.”

“I’m delighted and pleased that the senior senator [Feinstein] has taken the leadership on this issue just as we are having a change in our administration in Washington, D.C. and it is perfect timing,” Rosendahl said. “I totally agree that with the existing air controller staffing at LAX this is an accident waiting to happen.

“The critical issue will be the appointment of the new administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.”

In December 2007, Rosendahl introduced a successful motion before the Los Angeles City Council requesting that the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) brief the council’s Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee on the controllers’ contention that a staffing shortage had led to a spike in runway incursions at the airport.

Rosendahl said the Los Angeles City Council plans to schedule a meeting of the council’s Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee for an update on the LAX Tower and TRACON by Los Angeles World Airports executive director Gina Marie Lindsey and other Los Angeles World Airports officials.

The proposed update meeting would be much more valuable with the new leadership in Washington, D.C., Rosendahl said.

U.S. Congresswoman Jane Harman, Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe and Rosendahl have worked together on the issues of sufficient air traffic controllers and new safety technology at LAX, said Rosendahl.

Rosendahl said he also met with then-FAA Administrator Marion Blakey in 2007, advising her that an immediate focus on two areas be addressed:

— “status runway lights” for LAX, which Blakey told him were being tested in Dallas and San Diego; and

— that the LAX air control tower staffing be increased from 33 controllers to the 47 controllers that are required but never put in place, leading to controller overtime and fatigue.

“Blakey took me seriously and worked to initiate the runway safety lights at LAX, and this spring, an initial set of safety runway lights will be installed at LAX,” Rosendahl said. “This strong letter from Feinstein is a first mandate to continue this initial progress.”

Harman, who represents the 36th Congressional District, said, “My concerns about the shortage of qualified air traffic controllers at LAX are longstanding and I’ve raised the issue with multiple FAA administrators many times over the years.

“I’ve also visited the control tower and met with the controllers, and we’ve been lucky there haven’t been more ground incursions. Improving this situation will require both manpower and technology, and LAX is short on both. Until these fixes are made, the airport area and residents remain at risk.”

Denny Schneider, president of Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion (ARSAC), said, “I’m thrilled to see Senator Feinstein is calling for action to fix the real safety problem at LAX.

“She, like us, recognizes that there is a wide gap between FAA statements and their actions. We look forward to her sponsorship of legislation that will force the FAA’s hand into taking the very long overdue action of providing adequate numbers of fully experienced controllers in the tower and at TRACON.”