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Controllers Call on FAA to Retract This Published Statement: “Realistically, There Is No Such Thing as a Dangerous Staffing Level” - (8/16/2007)

WASHINGTON – The National Air Traffic Controllers Association today is calling upon the Federal Aviation Administration to retract the following statement attributed to FAA Spokesperson Ian Gregor in a California newspaper: "Realistically, there is no such thing as a dangerous staffing level.” 

Gregor, speaking to the North County Times about an ongoing tuberculosis scare at the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility in Miramar, Calif., appeared to be answering a question about the effect on air safety should controllers at the facility become sick when he was quoted as saying the following, “Realistically, there is no such thing as a dangerous staffing level. Safety is always our top priority. In the worst-case scenario, if we did have a bunch of people call in sick, we'd reduce services. We could keep planes further apart. Normally we have them three to five miles apart. We could separate them further and slow down the volume." 

“We call on the FAA to reject this comment, recognizing that controller staffing levels are, first and foremost, a safety issue,” NATCA President Patrick Forrey said. “Controllers keep safety as our top priority and we agree with the FAA’s stated desire to ‘reduce services’ for safety reasons when staffing reaches a critical level. But the FAA should never put itself in a position to ‘reduce services’ and negatively impact the flying public because it failed to staff the system appropriately. That is why controllers have made staffing our top issue.” 

Furthermore, said Forrey, “the reality is that the FAA is not actually reducing services or slowing the volume of traffic at many facilities that have already reached critical staffing levels, such as SCT, and is putting more stress and strain on fewer and fewer controllers. This reduces the margin of safety.” 

To illustrate his point, Forrey outlined the following examples of where low staffing has impacted safety or where the FAA has failed to act in the interest of safety by slowing traffic to compensate for fewer controllers: 

: Traffic at JFK has surged, from 1,000 operations (takeoffs and landings) a day in 2001 to over 1,400 today. This despite the fact that staffing has fallen from 37 controllers in 2001 to 28 today. Controller positions in the tower are now combined, due to the inability of the FAA to staff all of them. This has negatively affected controllers’ ability to maintain a keen attention to detail simply because they are being overloaded with traffic.

ATLANTA HARTSFIELD-JACKSON TOWER: The nation’s busiest airport has set several one-day traffic records already this summer. This despite the fact that the FAA approved the use of a new runway without adding controllers to work the extra traffic. In fact, staffing at the tower has fallen and now stands at 37 fully trained and certified controllers. The safe staffing level, according to NATCA, is 55 fully certified controllers. The understaffing crisis at the tower is illustrated by the fact that the FAA cannot staff the tower without mandating overtime. So far this year, the FAA has spent over $500,000 in overtime and most controllers are working either six-day weeks or 10-hour days. “This causes fatigue, which the NTSB says – and controllers agree – is a big safety concern,” Forrey said. A controller working after multiple six-day weeks in January made an error that almost led to an aircraft departing a runway set up for arriving planes. 

DALLAS TRACON: From January through this month, the FAA will have used $444,000 worth of overtime to cover for a lack of staffing. Of the 68 controllers working today, 80 percent now are forced to work OT. “If the FAA were, in their words, reducing services, to cover for this lack of staffing to ensure safety, there wouldn’t be a need to push these controllers to the point of exhaustion by forcing them to work OT,” Forrey said. Sometimes, not even overtime has been enough to cover all shifts. In March, the FAA violated federal law by forcing some controllers to work more than 10 hours in one shift – normal shifts last eight hours – and even kept controllers on position for as long as three hours, greatly increasing their fatigue level. 

RALEIGH-DURHAM (N.C.) TOWER:  An operational error incident on Aug. 17, 2005 occurred on a midnight shift in which there was only one air traffic controller on duty. He was looking at 12 aircraft and had responsibility for nine; six airborne, one departure and two ground movement. The FAA did not restrict the flow of aircraft due to this staffing level. This event prompted the FAA’s Vice President of Terminal Services to issue guidance reiterating the FAA’s policy that during midnight shifts at facilities with both radar and tower functions, two controllers should normally be on duty performing those responsibilities. “Clearly, the FAA determined that there was indeed a dangerous staffing level that must be avoided,” Forrey said. 

LEXINGTON (Ky.) TOWER: The Comair Flight 5191 crash on the morning of Aug. 27, 2006 occurred during a tower midnight shift in which the FAA staffed it with only one controller, instead of the two required by the FAA as per the guidance issued after the Raleigh-Durham incident.  

NEW YORK-LAGUARDIA: A serious runway incursion occurred on July 5, 2007 because of an error made by an overloaded controller working the lone ground control position staffed by the FAA that morning. The FAA could not staff both of the two ground control positions that are set up in the tower to handle the airports’ demanding traffic load, yet the agency did not reduce services to slow down the volume of traffic. 

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