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Controllers Accept O'Hare Flight Caps in the Interest of Safety but Decry FAA's Lack of Attention to Staffing Crisis - (8/18/2004)

CHICAGO – Air traffic controllers in Chicago today said they accept the announced flight restrictions at O’Hare International Airport in the interest of safety, but urged the Federal Aviation Administration to pay as much attention to the rapidly deteriorating staffing situation at the major Chicago air traffic control facilities as the agency has in addressing the problem of flight delays.

“The only acceptable and workable solutions to the Chicago O’Hare capacity crunch are to pour more concrete and hire more controllers,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association President John Carr said. “They could also implement the capacity enhancing airspace changes already designed. The FAA has, regrettably, chosen not to do any of these, opting instead to artificially cap flights and restrict interstate commerce. While we hate to see this emerge as a temporary solution, it’s in the best interest of safety, which is our highest priority.”

Carr criticized the FAA for failing to address the staffing crisis at Chicago area facilities that, if not solved soon, “will result in delay problems even worse than they are right now, along with a reduced margin of safety.”

The Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control facility, which directs all aircraft before their final approach and after their takeoffs to and from O’Hare, is authorized by the FAA to have 101 controllers on board, but currently has just 70 fully trained controllers working. The average age of the controllers is 45 and they are subject to mandatory scheduled overtime because of the crushing workload. Of the fully trained controllers on board, 14 are eligible to leave today and 21 more will become eligible by the end of next year. Forty could leave by 2007.

In the O’Hare air traffic control tower, 10 percent of the current controller workforce is eligible to leave today and 56 percent could leave within the next five years.

At Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center, the facility has experienced a net loss of 44 certified professional controllers over the past five years and has averaged 71 operational errors per year. But in the four years before the exodus began in 1999, the center averaged just 31 errors per year.

“What’s happening in Chicago is the proverbial canary in the coalmine,” Carr stated. “Without resources devoted to hiring more controllers and increasing airport capacity, we are going to see flights restricted in other busy airports and that is not a solution that works for anyone.”

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