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FAA Staffing Cuts to Los Angeles Air Traffic Control Facility Results in Dangerous Close Calls - (8/16/2005)

CONTACT: Hamid Ghaffari, 661/265.8206, 661/400.2496 (cell)

PALMDALE, Calif. – Air traffic controller staffing shortages caused by the Federal Aviation Administration are at critical levels at the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center, resulting in a serious degradation in the margin of safety. Several recent close calls can be attributed to the dangerously low staffing levels caused by unacceptable FAA cuts, proof that the agency continues to mismanage the system.

Recently, two planes came within 800 feet of each other in bad weather because the FAA had staffed two radar positions with only one controller instead of the normal four. On Aug. 12, at approximately 2:05 p.m. PDT, a regional jet flying from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles International Airport came within one mile laterally and 800 feet vertically of a King Air jet flying from Palm Springs, Calif. to Livermore, Calif.

“This close call is an example of a dangerous FAA trend of understaffing vital facilities,” said Hamid Ghaffari, Los Angeles Center facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “Under normal circumstances, these two positions would be staffed by four controllers and not just one.”

The FAA, beginning last April 1, directed managers at Los Angeles Center to reduce controller staffing during the day and swing shifts. Ghaffari said this has translated to a dramatic spike in operational errors.

In another recent close-call, two planes came within 100 feet of each other. This past Sunday, Aug. 14, at approximately 9 p.m. PDT, a Learjet flying from Cheyenne, Wyo. to Burbank, Calif. came within 100 feet vertically and three miles laterally of a Frontier Airlines jet flying from LAX to Denver. Air traffic was very heavy and jets were forced to deviate around substantial thunderstorm activity. But at the time of the operational error, the area was staffed with only eight certified controllers and two trainees. Normal staffing for this shift calls for 15 controllers and not 10, said Ghaffari.

“Traffic has increased dramatically at L.A. Center and yet the FAA continues to reduce our staffing numbers,” Ghaffari remarked. “L.A. Center handles 23 percent more planes than it did in 1992 but has 27 percent fewer controllers. Recently, 21 new trainees were sent to L.A. Center. Unfortunately, we do not have enough controllers to be able to train them on the job.”

Added Ghaffari: “It’s time for the FAA to address this critical staffing crisis. Let’s be clear here – this problem is nothing new. We have repeatedly asked everyone at the FAA to address it – from the administrator, Marion Blakey, to local managers. This is a simple equation - understaffing means bigger workloads and longer work hours for controllers and it increases the likelihood of a tragic mistake because fewer eyes are available to catch errors.”

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