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Schedule Change at Understaffed Tulsa Tower Will Decrease Margin of Safety, Unwisely Burden Fatigued Controllers - (1/17/2007)

CONTACT: Scott Keller, 918/225.9490, skennels@msn.com 

TULSA, Okla. – Air traffic controllers at the control tower and terminal radar approach control (TRACON) room at Tulsa International Airport, already working short 11 controllers from Federal Aviation Administration-authorized staffing standards, now must contend with a new and unsafe situation: The FAA is going to force controllers at the end of the midnight shift, after working 16 of the previous 24 hours, to handle the early morning heavy workload of traffic, instead of using fresh controllers who traditionally have started their shifts by working this morning “push.” 

It is the third schedule change made by FAA managers in the past four months and controllers believe the understaffing situation at the tower is forcing the agency to scramble to try and make a workable daily schedule. Currently, the tower is staffed with 28 fully certified controllers. The FAA authorizes the tower to staff 39. 

The latest schedule change takes effect this Sunday. There has always been an early morning “push,” at Tulsa, where a number of aircraft depart between 5:45 and 6:15 a.m., heading out to the larger hub airports. Normally, this push was worked by controllers arriving early to relieve a controller that had worked two shifts over the previous 24 hours and had been awake all night. But this new change means the fresh controllers’ morning shifts will be delayed. 

“There has been a policy around for more than nine years, stating that the mid-shift personnel should be moved to a less busy position, and, as the FAA puts it in its written guidelines, it ‘shall be accomplished in the last two hours of the shift as soon as staffing and workload permits,’” said Scott Keller, the facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “Evidently, staffing will no longer permit this at Tulsa.” 

Even more disturbing, says Keller, is that the FAA managers at the facility, who are rarely ever at work before 8 a.m. to witness the early morning shifts, conceived and implemented this new schedule with no input from the controllers, all of whom work these shifts on a weekly rotation. Additionally, the schedule change calls into question the integrity of the FAA’s oft-stated current national position that it wants to ‘staff to traffic.’ 

“I spoke with three supervisors about the change and received little information on the reasoning,” Keller said. “One supervisor did tell me, interestingly, ‘I don’t believe traffic was ever brought up during our schedule discussions.’” In his official role as the NATCA representative, Keller also made a written request with the FAA facility manager to discuss several issues surrounding these changes. The manager’s response, paraphrased by Keller, and indicative of the new reckless, authoritarian FAA management style since the agency imposed work rules on controllers last Labor Day was, “We don’t need to talk to you.”  

“The important question to ask here is, ‘Has someone considered the risk?’ And, “Is the risk worth taking?’” Keller said. “Controllers are very resilient. Some perform at their best under adverse conditions, but traffic volume and fatigue are different and the two don’t mix well. We are concerned that the safety of the airspace around Tulsa will now be subjected to hardships and pressures that could be avoided with proper staffing and reasonable FAA management and scheduling practices.”

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