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Understaffed Southern California TRACON Suffers Rash of Operational Errors; FAA Suspends Training to Review Operation - (8/17/2007)

CONTACT:     Steve Merlin, NATCA Facility Representative at Southern California TRACON, 831-428-4873 

MIRAMAR, Calif. – Five operational errors have occurred in less than two weeks at the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) – the nation’s busiest such facility – including three that happened in a span of four recent days, prompting local Federal Aviation Administration management officials to suspend all training of new controllers for three days to assess the facility’s training and staffing situation.

The errors were spread out in different sectors of airspace controlled by Southern California TRACON (SCT). For instance, one error – defined as two aircraft coming closer than FAA rules allow – occurred on the final approach path into LAX and one on the approach into Santa Ana, Orange County John Wayne Airport.  

“We have had mandatory six-day work weeks for a few months now and that has led to fatigue and a loss of focus and has reduced our margin for error to a bare minimum,” said NATCA SCT Facility Representative Steve Merlin. “Our normal shift rotation has become a mixture of varying start and stop times and controllers have been pushed to their physical and mental limits.”  

Merlin said all but one area of the facility’s airspace has training that goes on constantly. There are 40 trainees on board, with more to come, for a total of nearly 60 within the next few months. “We are losing controllers to retirement and promotions to management on an average of two a month,” Merlin said. “We are almost 80 fully certified controllers short of our needs, with the new hire numbers not even being able to replace those people much less get us up to the staffing number we need.” 

In the Empire Area of SCT, the FAA is training on all positions plus a group of veteran controllers are being trained on the newly consolidated Palm Springs sectors, the result of the FAA’s rushed efforts to move Palm Springs’ radar control responsibility to SCT. In three other areas, the veteran controllers are also being trained on new sectors while they train the new hires on the old sectors.  

In at least two of the operational error incidents, a hand-off or "assist" was needed but not staffed by the FAA supervisor. One involved a new hire who was on his own on his first radar scope and one occurred while training was being conducted.  

“We are running shifts that used to be staffed with 11 or 12 fully certified controllers (CPCs) with six or seven CPC's,” Merlin said. “On August 4th, the Empire Area was forced to work the day shift with four CPC's when 11 was the norm. Plus, we’re forced to train new hires on top of that.”  

Additionally, Merlin said, “we have had on the job training instructors ask to have a day of ‘just working traffic’ because they are burnt out from training and they have been told ‘no’ by the FAA and forced to train against their wishes and judgment.” 

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