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Understaffed San Jose Tower to Get Controller and Supervisor Transferred from SFO; Two Recent Incidents Highlight Problems - (1/11/2007)

CONTACT:     Rich Burton (San Jose), 408/857.3544

SAN JOSE – The San Jose Air Traffic Control Tower, which is missing nearly half of its authorized staffing after three controllers were recently poisoned by a toxic chemical in a botched air conditioning maintenance project, is finally receiving a small dose of help. The Federal Aviation Administration plans to send one controller and one supervisor to San Jose from San Francisco Air Traffic Control Tower. But their arrival won’t greatly alleviate the stress and fatigue currently experienced by the controllers who have been working short-staffed for many months. 

San Jose Tower is currently operating with just 12 fully certified air traffic controllers, nine below the FAA’s authorized total, which the agency devised using its own system of determining need based on traffic volume. Three of those nine vacant positions are held by controllers who are currently too sick to work after exposure to the chemical involved in changing the air conditioning unit. FAA management still has not taken appropriate measures to remove all traces of the chemical, leading controllers to fear that the continued prolonged exposure to it may result in more of them becoming too sick to work as well.           

But the planned transfer of the controller and supervisor to the tower, while welcomed by controllers, comes after two recent incidents where planes got closer than FAA rules allow; incidents where low staffing and poorly rested controllers forced to work six-day weeks and 10-hour days since early November are the root causes. 

On Dec. 26, an aircraft was cleared for takeoff on a runway that was occupied by an airport vehicle. Leading up to the runway incursion, an FAA supervisor in the tower was working traffic and also handling duties as the acting facility manager. He received a phone call while working and failed to provide a complete briefing to the controller who was relieving him from the position. The controller was not told about the vehicle on the runway. 

Because of low staffing, FAA supervisors at other facilities around the country have also been pressed into duty as front-line air traffic controllers and many – including some who were not fully certified – have committed operational errors.  

In the second incident, on Dec. 31, a controller didn’t catch an erroneous read-back from a pilot regarding instructions to hold short of crossing a runway in which another aircraft was departing. The controller did cancel the takeoff clearance, thus ensuring a safe outcome to the episode. But it didn’t have to happen at all. The controller was working despite being visibly shaken from an episode earlier in the day in which the person was stuck in the facility’s elevator, triggering a fire alarm. During this time, the tower’s duties were combined into two positions due to minimal staffing and the need for the on-duty supervisor to investigate the fire alarm.  

“These latest incidents can be attributed directly to controllers working longer hours due to less staffing,” said Rich Burton, San Jose Tower spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.  “This facility is staffed with just over half the number of controllers the FAA itself says we need. That fact makes every shift here short-staffed. You cannot run an operation with the same margin of safety with 12 controllers, as you can with 21. Something’s gotta give.” 

Staffing levels around the Bay Area are dropping at a disturbingly rapid pace. At Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center in Fremont, the FAA authorizes a staffing level of 268. But only 151 fully certified controllers are currently on staff. At Oakland Tower, the authorized level is 32, but only 23 fully certified controllers are on staff. At SFO, the authorized level is 35 but there will only be 25 fully certified controllers on staff after the FAA transfers one to San Jose Tower.   

To receive a PDF copy of a Dec. 15, 2006 letter to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey from House Democrats Mike Honda, Zoe Lofgren and Ellen Tauscher on this issue, please e-mail NATCA Director of Communications Doug Church at dchurch@natcadc.org.


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