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NATCA Asks Congress to Solicit Expertise of National Academy of Sciences to Conduct Independent Controller Staffing Study - (6/8/2007)

WASHINGTON – A recent letter from House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member John Mica, R-Fla., asking the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration for “specific details” on the FAA’s air traffic control staffing plan has buoyed hopes by controllers that the agency will be required to submit to a transparent analysis of how it concluded in March that it needed between nine and 26 percent fewer controllers than previously agreed-upon staffing levels. NATCA is currently asking for inclusion of language in the House FAA Reauthorization bill calling for the FAA to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study to estimate staffing needs for FAA air traffic controllers to ensure the safe operation of the National Airspace System.

In his letter to Administrator Marion Blakey, Congressman Mica wrote, “I have long supported an air traffic controller staffing model wherein staffing levels are determined by the volume of traffic that each facility is expected to control.” He pointed out that his staff uncovered examples where staffing levels weren’t matching traffic needs and wrote that at some facilities, “we found an increase in traffic without a comparable increase in controller staffing.” Continued Mica, “It is vitally important that FAA staff its facilities so that controllers can safely and efficiently handle the levels of operations encountered at the facilities.”

“We are very pleased to see Ranking Member Mica keeping the staffing issue in the forefront and calling for a staffing model based on safety and traffic needs,” NATCA President Patrick Forrey said. “There is no way to overstate the critical nature of the staffing crisis and its impact on the margin of safety. Based on what we have heard from the FAA, the plan is to staff to budget, not what is needed to safely and efficiently move traffic.”

A Feb. 22, 2005 letter from then-FAA Central Regional Administrator Christopher R. Blum to Kansas Congressman Dennis Moore proves NATCA’s contention that the FAA has long sought to adjust staffing levels downward to meet budget goals. Blum writes, “We are required to work within a fixed budget, pay our people, and meet the needs of the National Airspace System. To accomplish this, we have identified the number of positions at each facility we can fund and remain within our budget.”

The March release of the FAA’s updated Controller Staffing Workforce Plan was expected to provide a facility-by-facility staffing standard for controllers, as suggested in reports by the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Transportation inspector general. NATCA was prepared to work in partnership with the FAA and the scientific community to develop legitimate empirical measures that would produce a credible staffing standard. NATCA has been working with the academic community to coordinate their scientific research with our knowledge as subject matter experts. The objective is to determine the cognitive measures that must be considered in order to produce a legitimate and sustainable facility-by-facility air traffic controller staffing standard.

But instead of this facility-by-facility standard, the FAA plan provided a “range” of controller staffing numbers (minimum and maximum levels) for each of the FAA’s 314 staffed facilities. NATCA has requested access to the scientific data used to develop this range. The FAA has refused those requests. In the absence of that information, it would appear that the numbers fluctuate arbitrarily according to the budget. The FAA’s arbitrarily reduced standards are striking, given recent Congressional testimony by Administrator Blakey that, “demand for FAA services has never been greater.”

Given the opportunity to keep pace with the wave of long expected and predicted controller retirements, the FAA in fiscal year 2004 instead hired just 13 controller trainees. Since it takes up to three years for a new hire to complete training, a robust hiring plan in ’04 would have helped replenish the controller ranks this year in time to ease what has turned out to be a record period of flight delays. Instead, the FAA waited to hire until it could impose work rules and a 30 percent pay cut on them last year that has now left them angered, uninspired, poorly trained and in many cases, in financial distress. Hundreds have either turned down job offers or resigned after beginning training.

NATCA supports Congress mandating a scientific study of the assumptions and methods used by the FAA to estimate staffing needs for FAA controllers. The report would include recommendations for objective staffing standards based on current and future projected air traffic levels, and estimates of the cost and schedules for developing such standards. The study would also include human factors considerations relevant to air traffic control performance and fatigue.

Until the study is completed and implemented, NATCA believes the FAA should staff facilities based upon the 2002 authorized levels that both parties agreed to based on traffic needs. The importance of this last point is underscored by the stated urgency by the FAA that work must begin soon on a Next Generation air traffic control system. There must be enough controllers on board to make this transition to a new system work safely and correctly.

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