Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hellooo, Washington,
Anyone Listening?

Week after week, the ATC staffing crisis in this country grows, and each day, I launch my browser expecting to see a giant headline screaming that the FAA has announced a major labor agreement with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) that provides generous pay increases and working condition improvements for the men and women who keep our aircraft from trading paint.

Of course, that headline hasn't been written...yet. Maybe FAA is too busy trying to conjure up some whacked user fee system to think about staffing issues, But according to a recent NATCA press release, the sky really IS falling:
The nation’s air traffic controllers, faced with a 10 percent loss of their workforce in the last year, a record pace of new losses this year and worsening stress and fatigue levels that have drawn the critical eye of two major government watchdogs, are declaring a staffing emergency in four key areas of the country with some of the busiest airspace in the world: Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Southern California. A staffing emergency means that controllers do not have enough trained and experienced personnel on the ground to safely handle the volume of traffic in the air and at major airports.
Now there can be no disputing the fact that in all the phraseology we pilots embrace, the word EMERGENCY is top of the heap. Nothing else should get FAA's attention quite like that word, when used to describe this:
NATCA is projecting that by Feb. 3 – just one-third of the way into the 2008 fiscal year – 500 controllers will have retired already, with 2,200 more controllers able to retire by year’s end. There have been 357 retirements so far since October 1, 2007, including 201 on Jan. 3 alone. Another 130 have told NATCA they intend to retire by Feb. 3 due to the lack of any incentive to stay on the job. The current trend, if it continues, will shatter the FAA’s projection of 695 retirements this fiscal year and perhaps even the record of 856 retirements set in fiscal year 2007.
NATCA's President, Patrick Forrey spells this out in clear English that anyone at FAA ought to be able to understand:
“An already dangerous situation is about to get worse. “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. The GAO has already stated that the risk of a catastrophic accident on our runways around the nation is high. Without an adequate amount of rested, well-trained controllers in towers and radar facilities, the risk of an aviation accident now includes the airspace as well as the ground.”
Those who think this is all just grumbling by disgruntled controllers might want to consider the leading reasons why controllers are declaring a staffing emergency in selected cities:
ATLANTA - At Atlanta Center, the nation’s busiest facility, there are 279 fully certified controllers on staff, down from over 400 five years ago. Approximately 70 are eligible to retire this year. Overtime is mandatory and total dollar amounts have doubled FAA projections this past year.

CHICAGO - There were a record 56 close calls at Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control in Elgin, Ill., due to controller error in 2007. The previous high was 28 in 2006. And in a reply to a Congressional inquiry, the FAA stated it had only 76 fully trained and certified controllers on staff at Chicago TRACON, 21 below the FAA’s own staffing target of 97, and only 46 fully certified controllers at O'Hare Tower, 25 short of what is needed.

NEW YORK - The number of fully trained and certified controllers at JFK Tower has dropped 42 percent since 2001 while traffic has increased 40 percent. There are now just 22 fully certified controllers on staff. Of those, eight must retire this year and another four will reach retirement eligibility. Controller errors at the New York TRACON, rose 27 percent last year from fiscal year 2006, and at New York Center, controller errors hit a three-year high of 66, including 10 that occurred during on-the-job training.

SOCAL - At Los Angeles Center, one out of every three controllers is a trainee and many are getting less than an hour per week of on-the-job training as they move through a 3 to 4-year process to become fully certified as a controller. LAX has just 33 controllers in the tower today, compared to 46 in the years when fewer close calls occurred.
What will it take for BushCo's FAA to wake up and push this staffing crisis to the very top of their priority list, above user fees, NextGen, raising the pay of their managers or buying original art for their lobbys? And what happens when two airliners full of souls meet inbound to ORD and we have Tenerife right here in our crowded skies.

Three words...Heads. Will. Roll.