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Second Serious Incident in Four Days in Four Days at Chicago Center Shows FAA Sacrificing Safety Margin by Overworking Fatigued Controllers - (11/19/2007)

CONTACT:     Jeffrey Richards, NATCA Chicago Center Facility Representative, 630-544-1372; Doug Church, NATCA National Office, 202-220-9802
AURORA, Ill. – An incident Saturday in Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center airspace in which two private aircraft got much closer than rules allow – including one owned by the founder of Lands’ End clothing – was the second serious episode in four days attributable to an error made by a tired and overworked controller and the fourth such error in the first six weeks of the 2008 fiscal year. Only one serious error was made during the entire 2007 fiscal year.
Saturday’s incident at 11:44 a.m. CST involved a Cessna Caravan turboprop headed from Chicago Midway Airport to Leeward County (Wisc.) Airport and a single-engine Cirrus SR22 headed from Lone Rock, Wisc., to Faribault, Minn. The aircraft got within 1.3 miles laterally and 500 feet vertically. Federal Aviation Administration rules require a minimum of five miles and 1,000 feet of separation. The incident came just four days after a serious close call in Chicago Center’s airspace above Northern Indiana in which two commercial jetliners were forced to take emergency evasive action.
The Saturday incident occurred in an area of Chicago Center’s control room where it takes 11 fully certified controllers to fully staff and run that airspace. However, due to staffing shortages in the facility that have worsened over the past year, there were only nine controllers working at the time. 
“It’s clear now that even the FAA, which has ignored our staffing and workload concerns, believes there is a serious safety problem here because they have announced to our facility that training of new prospective controllers has been halted until Friday and they are putting every manager on the control room floor,” said NATCA’s Chicago Center Facility Representative Jeffrey Richards. “It is our hope these managers will finally see what we already know: Controllers here are overworked, tired and understaffed. That reduces the margin of safety and leads to more mistakes.”

Chicago Center currently has 340 fully trained controllers on staff, with 85 trainees. Just 14 months ago, the facility had 380 fully trained controllers and 45 trainees. The FAA’s imposed work rules and pay bands have had a serious negative impact on the facility, as they have around the country, with record retirement and attrition totals that have resulted in 7.5 percent fewer controllers working four percent more traffic nationwide this holiday season. The situation at Chicago Center will likely get much worse right after the December holiday travel period, when the FAA plans to fill 11 supervisor positions with fully certified controllers from the facility, further worsening the staffing and fatigue problems.

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