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FAA Violates Controller Rest Law, Causing Near Collision - (11/15/2007)

CONTACT:     Scott Conde, NATCA Oakland Center Facility Rep., 510-673-0237
Hamid Ghaffari, NATCA Western Pacific Regional V.P., 661-400-2496 

, Calif. – The continuing air traffic controller staffing crisis at Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZOA) resulted in two aircraft passing dangerously close over the skies above Northern California last Sunday afternoon. NATCA discovered today that the Federal Aviation Administration is charging the air traffic controller with an operational error and is protesting the outrageously unsafe working conditions in which this incident occurred. The controller was being forced by the FAA to work his second overtime shift and seventh straight day of the week, a violation of federal law. 

The aircraft involved were on crossing courses, with one south-bound at 22,000 feet, and the other climbing out of Fresno to the northeast. The controller stopped the departing aircraft at 21,000 feet and then tried to apply "visual separation rules" to allow the departure to continue its climb. The problem was that "visual separation rules" are only authorized below 18,000 feet. This misapplication of a rule caused the aircraft to pass dangerously close and well below the required separation minimum for safe operations.  

“The problem with this scenario is that the controller involved was working his seventh day in a row without rest,” said Scott Conde, the Oakland Center facility representative for NATCA. “FAA regulations require that controllers work no more than six days in a row without a full day of rest due to the fatiguing nature of their jobs. According to these regulations it is the FAA's responsibility to ensure that these requirements are strictly adhered to in order to avoid this type of a mistake from fatigue.           

The controller involved started his work week with a previously assigned overtime shift and then worked his regular schedule comprised of five days with rotating shifts that started at hours throughout the entire range of the day. He was then called in on his first day off and assigned a seventh shift that would have seen him working between 11:00am and 7:00pm that night. This combination of rotating shift start times with excessive overtime assignments led to the mental error that allowed these aircraft to pass too close to each other. 

Said Conde: "These types of mental errors will continue to happen as staffing erodes due to retirements and resignations. The FAA needs to step up and accept responsibility for putting the controller in this situation, and it needs to address the imposed working conditions that are driving controllers to retire and resign from the agency in bunches." The number of retirements and resignations from the controller ranks have exceeded 1,600 since the agency imposed work rules on controllers a little over a year ago. 

Oakland Center has 167 fully certified controllers on staff, along with a staggering total of 109 developmentals (trainees) that has caused the certification process for controllers to exceed four years on average.  NATCA expects that at least a quarter of the developmentals will not successfully complete their training and have to leave the facility.  

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