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Embarrassing FAA Report on Chicago TRACON Operation Fails to Address Staffing Crisis That is Leading to Delay, Safety Problems - (10/4/2004)

ELGIN, Ill. – Nearly eight months after spending a month investigating staffing issues, delays, errors and air traffic controller workload at the Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control facility, the Federal Aviation Administration has released its final report – an embarrassing, 12-paragraph, 703-word, memo-like statement that does extraordinarily little to protect the safety of the flying public.

The report found that Chicago TRACON's unique operating procedures created an excessive workload on controllers. Yet the solution the report proposes is not to add any more controllers, but to add more supervisors, who do not control traffic. The report was released just weeks after supervisor ranks at the facility swelled from 10 to 16, including four pulled from controller positions, leaving just 66 fully trained controllers on duty when the FAA authorized total for the facility is 101.

"This report is a clear-cut example of egregious agency waste, fraud and abuse. I look at this report and say, 'Where's the beef?'" NATCA President John Carr said. "How do you tell struggling airlines that they have to cut back on flights and tell passengers that they will have fewer flights and, then, fail to offer any real solutions? How do you have the nerve to issue a report that says, 'everything is sort of okay, but we have work to do,' and not even provide the resources to do it?"

Added Ray Gibbons, Chicago TRACON controller and local NATCA chapter president: "This report does a real disservice to the flying public, not only here in Chicago, but across the country. We are a major hub serving millions of passengers a year and to give such little thought to the serious situation here is beyond comprehension. The FAA has already asked the ailing airline industry to reduce flights. It has said that changes need to be implemented. So, I ask today, where are the changes? Where is the staff?"

With the four controllers lost to supervisor positions and three more moved to the facility's traffic management unit, Chicago TRACON has suffered a net loss of 24 controllers in the last five years. And 14 more are eligible to retire today. None of this is reflected in the FAA's report.

"Do the math. If you don't have enough controllers to manage traffic loads that continue to set all-time facility records -- now reaching 4,500 planes per day – you’ve got trouble," Carr stated. "You've got delays, you have congestion – and, yes, real safety concerns."

FAA investigators had opportunities to interact with many controllers during the team's facility visit from January 21 to February 20, but the final report is devoid of any controller perspective, input or knowledge, confirming NATCA's prediction of such an outcome in a press release on Jan. 22.

"The FAA has some explaining to do – and not just to us – most importantly, to the flying public," Carr concluded. "They need to tell the public how they plan to make sure that we have enough eyes watching the skies over Chicago. So far, they just break the backs of their dwindling ranks of controllers, hoping the odds will continue to go in their favor and disaster stays at arm's length. They are resorting to making controllers work an extraordinary amount of overtime – meaning that we have tired eyes watching our skies."

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