“The buck stops at the White House and President Bush needs to wake up and take a hard look at air traffic controller staffing, since he has oversight of the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration),” said Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl recently.
Rosendahl represents the 11th Council District, which includes LAX (Los Angeles International Airport).
“President Bush is out of line with reality and needs to step up his awareness of this situation very quickly since he controls the FAA,” Rosendahl said.
A Rosendahl motion before the Los Angeles City Council requested that the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) union brief the City Council’s Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee on its contention that understaffing is responsible for a sharp increase in runway incursions at LAX.
Rosendahl took action after the US GAO (Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress) issued a report in early December on nationwide runway safety, faulting the FAA for not following National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) guidelines, under-staffing of air traffic controllers and continuing delays in technology implementation.
“LAX will not expand under any circumstances,” Rosendahl said.
Rosendahl has voiced continuous opposition to attempts to move the northern runway and expand LAX, and said that he continues to oppose runway reconfiguration without absolute and incontrovertible proof that the northern runway is a safety hazard.
Rosendahl said the main issue with LAX is still regionalization, because 40 percent of LAX traffic is cargo, which could be sent to LA/Ontario International Airport or LA/Palmdale Airport.
Rosendahl said he has met with a private sector group from Atlanta — and plans to meet with them again early next year — that is developing a maglev (magnetic levitation) train that could take passengers to Palmdale and Ontario in a quick and efficient manner. The train operates with a cheaper and quicker technology than the German and Japanese maglev trains, he said.
The benefit of working with the private sector is that the city and taxpayers don’t have to pay for the technology, said Rosendahl.
US GAO STUDY FINDINGS — The results of a Government Accountability Office survey of experts in aviation indicated that, “the most effective actions that the FAA was taking were lower-cost measures, such as enhancing airport markings, lighting and signage,” states the US GAO report.
“Because most incursions are caused by human error, the FAA is making outreach and awareness efforts to address errors made by pilots, air traffic controllers and airport vehicle operators,” states the report.
The FAA has not implemented any of National Transportation Safety Board’s six runway incursion prevention recommendations made in 2000, and on August 28th, the NTSB made additional runway safety recommendations to the FAA and others, according to the Government Accountability Office report.
“The results of our survey of experts indicated that the actions that FAA could take with the greatest potential to prevent runway incursions, considering costs, technological feasibility and operational changes, were measures to provide information or alerts directly to pilots,” says the report. “For example, the actions that FAA could take with the most potential were lighting systems that guide pilots as they taxi at the airport and technology that provides enhanced situational awareness on the airfield and alerts of potential incursions.”
The preliminary rate of incursions for fiscal year 2007 (October 1st, 2006 to September 30th, 2007) is about 12 percent higher than during the prior fiscal year and is nearly as high as when the rate of incursions reached a peak in fiscal year 2001, stated the US GAO report.
Preliminary FAA data indicate 370 incursions occurred during fiscal year 2007, representing a rate of 6.05 incursions per million air traffic control tower operations.
The number and rate of runway incursions in the nation rose in the 1990s before peaking in fiscal year 2001, when there were 407 incursions — a rate of 6.1 incursions per million air traffic control tower operations. In fiscal year 2006 there were 330 incursions — a rate of 5.4 incursions per one million tower operations, stated the Government Accountability Office report.
The rate of incursions remained relatively constant from fiscal year 2002 though fiscal year 2006 — at an average rate of 5.2 incursions per million tower operations.
“If the self-professed guardians of safety had read the [Government Accountability Office] report, they would be pushing for the quick fixes that would address 95 percent of the incursion problems instead of continuing to push for expansion,” said Denny Schneider, president of ARSAC (Alliance for Regional Solution to Airport Congestion).
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS BRIEFING — Mike Foote, president of the local National Air Traffic Controllers Association union at the LAX Tower, presented a briefing to the City Council’s Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee Wednesday, December 19th. Foote has been an air traffic controller since 1982, with 11 years experience at LAX.
“The problem with close calls at LAX is that we are only the tip of the iceberg,” Foote said. “Every day you hear about the latest close call somewhere else in the nation. We cannot continue to roll the dice and expect that everything will just continue to work out.
“There are several issues impacting safety. No one silver bullet is going to solve this very complex issue, and that said, the biggest safety concern at LAX is the lack of experienced controllers.
“Controllers have been retiring just as soon as they can, and new-hires are often straight off the street with no experience at all.
“Our staffing levels today are right at where they were at the time of the US Air crash in 1991, and afterwards the NTSB reported that the FAA failed to appropriately staff the tower.
“It was only a couple of years ago when LAX was fully staffed with our historic staffing allotment of 47 to 50, and currently we have 33.”
During that earlier period, with an adequate staff, LAX experienced an “unprecedented period of safety, without a single controller error and total runway incidents had dropped drastically,” Foote said.
He explained that due to recent imposed work rules, experienced controllers from facilities like San Diego, Long Beach, Burbank and John Wayne airports would lose money if they came to LAX.
Foote said they are averaging over two shifts of overtime per controller per month, and even with the overtime they are short-staffed.
Now, Foote describes a “slow downward spiral with controller errors way up as are the total runway incursion numbers.”
“Recent reports from the US GAO and the NTSB highlight the problem with controller fatigue and the impact it has on air traffic safety,” said Foote.
These reports are only confirming what the FAA and controllers already knew, that air traffic controller staffing and safety are linked, according to Foote.
RUNWAY INCURSIONS — “Human factors are the most important contribution to runway incursions,” said Najmedin Meshkati, a USC professor of engineering who participated in the recent US GAO study on runway and ramp safety, and has been involved in research and teaching on aviation safety and runway incursions for 20 years at USC.
“According to the FAA’s Runway Safety Blueprint 2002-2004, human factors [are] the common denominator in every runway incursion,” Meshkati said.
Responding to an article in the Los Angeles Times that stated, “LAX controllers aren’t any more overworked than their peers elsewhere,” Meshkati said in an interview with that newspaper that, unlike most other airports, LAX controllers have had to handle the added effect of continuous construction on the southern runways.
“There are strong indications that air traffic controllers — not only at LAX but nationwide — are increasingly suffering from fatigue,” said Meshkati.
“This critical issue prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to update its ‘most wanted list’ of safety improvements, adding three safety recommendations on air traffic controller fatigue to the existing aviation issue area that addresses human fatigue,” said Meshkati.
LAX RUNWAY INCURSIONS IN 2007 — The Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA, the city agency that operates LAX and other city airports) Web site for runway incursions has a breakdown of incursions for 2007, showing 11 incursions from January 1st to December 12th this year.
One of the southern runways has been closed for center taxiway construction beginning every Saturday morning at 12 a.m. until 6 a.m. Monday morning since June, and will continue this schedule until April.
Prior to the center taxiway construction, the southernmost runway was relocated 55 feet south, again impacting activity on the runway and forcing air traffic onto the northern runways.
The northern runways have borne the brunt of the “construction activity” and it could be argued that the increase in incursions is spillover because of south runway construction, said one Playa del Rey resident.
At a recent Board of Airport Commissioners meeting, board president Alan Rothenberg said in an interview, “Enough is enough. We’re going to push really hard with staff and our lawyers to find some way to make things move faster.”
Rothenberg has also indicated that a north airfield study ordered from NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) at the request of opponents regarding northern runway expansion is not necessary and he will urge officials to proceed without it, according to news reports.
Opponents of the northern runway reconfiguration had requested that NASA perform a safety study, citing an unbiased and open assessment by that agency.
A Board of Airport Commissioners meeting earlier this month provided details of a lease of LA/Palmdale Regional Airport property by NASA, which has been approved by the board and the Los Angeles City Council.
NASA is leasing 16.2 acres and Hangar 703 (422,000 square feet) for an “initial annual rent of $1.45 million,” and investing $6.5 million for upgrades and repairs to use the facility as a NASA Aircraft Operations Facility.
One LAX expansion opponent who had advocated for the NASA study of northern runway safety expressed surprise at the lease contract, saying that he hopes that if the study is performed (delays have been attributed to NASA being too busy on space projects), the business relationship with Los Angeles World Airports doesn’t impact the objectivity of the proposed study on runway safety.
NATCA PRESIDENT MEETING WITH FAA — “The country is facing a growing crisis in aviation safety and air traffic control,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Patrick Forrey told acting FAA administrator Bobby Sturgell in a December 21st meeting.
In an effort to come up with some near-term solutions, the controllers union requested that the FAA convene an air traffic control safety conference to bring the nation’s pilots, airlines and controllers together, and Forrey and Sturgell agreed to meet Thursday, January 3rd, to develop a process to identify and address safety-related issues that the two organizations could address jointly, said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
“Around the nation, controllers are being asked to work long hours with very short staff to handle increasingly congested runways and airspace,” said Forrey. “Controllers need a process to report aviation safety problems because they are currently subject to discipline and retaliation from their FAA supervisors.
“The FAA continues to minimize the seriousness of recurring close calls at some of the nation’s busiest airports, including Wednesday’s near miss at Chicago Center in Aurora, Illinois, where a veteran controller had to intercede for an inexperienced trainee.”
Facilities are short-staffed, but more than ten percent of the remaining veteran workforce will likely retire in the upcoming days and weeks, according to Forrey.
“The FAA continues to claim that critical technology needed to prevent mishaps and handle congestion is fielded on time and within budget, yet this flies in the face of data released by the U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General and the GAO,” said Forrey.
NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD — On November 8th, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a press release stating, “Six near runway collisions at San Francisco, New York, Ft. Lauderdale and other airports were narrowly averted in just the last six months,” leading the agency to highlight the issue of runway safety as among its most important issue areas to be addressed by the FAA.
The National Transportation Safety Board added three safety recommendations on air traffic controller fatigue to the existing aviation area addressing human fatigue, and is asking the FAA to develop a program to educate controllers and those who schedule them about the causes, effects and safety implications of fatigue.
The National Transportation Safety Board is also asking the FAA to work in conjunction with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union in “revising work-scheduling policies to reduce the incidence of fatigue on the job.”
“Since air traffic controllers play such a crucial role in the safety of our air transportation system, we must ensure that the performance of these professionals is not compromised by something as preventable as human fatigue,” said Mark Rosenker, Na- tional Transportation Safety Board chairman.
Recommendations by the NTSB include:
— implementing a safety system for ground movement that will ensure the safe movement of airplanes on the ground and provide direct warning capability to the flight crews;
— implementing ATC (air traffic control) procedures requiring an explicit clearance for each runway crossing; and
— requiring operators to conduct arrival landing distance calculations before every landing based on existing performance data, actual conditions and incorporating a minimum safety margin of 15 percent.
The National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to the FAA was referred to in the US GAO report, recommending that “the FAA require pilots to conduct landing distance assessments before every landing on the basis of existing aircraft performance data, actual conditions and incorporating a minimum 15 percent safety margin and the FAA has not yet responded to this recommendation.”
The Government Accountability Office report then states, “FAA officials said they were analyzing NTSB’s recommendations on air traffic controller fatigue but that implementing them would require renegotiating the agency’s contract with the union representing the controllers.”
“The FAA seems to be saying that risking the lives of air traffic passengers is “collateral damage” until they get around to negotiating with the air traffic controllers, said a Westchester resident.
ASSEMBLYMAN LIEU’S LETTER TO THE FAA — In a December 17th letter to FAA administrator Sturgell, California State Assemblyman Ted Lieu, who represents the 53rd District, (which includes LAX) and is the chair of the California State Assembly Select Committee on Aerospace Industry, stated, “I am writing to request, again, that the FAA take immediate steps to improve safety at LAX.
“Specifically, I urgently request that the FAA decrease the number of flights at LAX and redirect those flights to regional airports; increase the spacing between flights; and hire more experienced air traffic controllers.
“In addition to failing its central mission of ensuring passenger safety, the FAA is also misleading elected officials and the public. The GAO study directly contradicts the FAA’s November 7th letter in which the FAA stated in writing that it had been successfully reducing the risk of runway incursions. Nothing could be further from the truth. The GAO has concluded that there is a ‘high risk of a catastrophic runway collision occurring in the United States’.”
Lieu also called on the FAA to prevent the Airbus A380 from flying into LAX until safety has been improved or to clarify to the public why the aircraft poses no additional safety risks.
Several studies have concluded that the A380 is too massive to safely land, taxi and hold at LAX currently, and Lieu said it “would be wrong to expand LAX solely to accommodate the Airbus A380, and given a choice between expanding LAX or having the Airbus fly elsewhere, the A380 should fly elsewhere.”
Lieu added, “In declining to make the above safety improvements at LAX, the FAA wrote a letter on November 7th stating that, ‘Since 2000, the FAA and the aviation industry have been successfully reducing the risk of runway incursions.’ That is a false statement. According to a recent study by the GAO, runway incursions remained at a steady high between 2002 and 2006, incursions neared a peak high in 2007, and LAX was identified as having one of the worst airports in the nation when it comes to safety.
“I do not appreciate being lied to by the FAA. Your agency’s actions have repeatedly violated the FAA’s four core values of safety — quality, integrity and people. But more than the FAA’s credibility is at stake. Passengers’ lives are at stake. The FAA needs to act now. Doing nothing and gambling with the lives of passengers is not an acceptable option.
“FAA spokesman Ian Gregor claimed in a newspaper article on August 31st that the runway incursions at LAX are solely the result of runway ‘configuration’ and have ‘nothing to do with flight volume’. That statement is contradicted by the GAO study, which indicated there have been numerous runway incursions at airports that have vastly different runway configurations.
“The immediate problem is not one of ‘geometry’, it is one of ‘arithmetic’. Subtract flights and add spacing between the flights and safety at LAX will improve.”