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GAO Report Adds to Mounting Evidence Against FAA: Controller Staffing Shortages Causing Fatigue, Which Impacts Safety - (12/5/2007)

CONTACT:     Doug Church, 202-220-9802 (office); 301-346-8245 (cell)

– The Government Accountability Office’s report today on runway safety states, “Air traffic controller fatigue continues to be a human factors issue affecting runway safety.” The report further states that fatigue “may result from regularly working overtime” and that, “We found that as of May 2007, at least 20 percent of the controllers at 25 air traffic control facilities, including towers at several of the country’s busiest airports, were regularly working 6-day weeks.” Additionally, the GAO concludes that, “progress on addressing runway safety will be impeded until the human factors issues involving fatigue are addressed.” 

In response to the GAO report, NATCA President Patrick Forrey issued the following statement:

            “This report provides yet another credible, compelling and clear link between safety and controller fatigue, which is caused by staffing shortages and longer hours on the job. My question today is, how much more do we have to hear before the FAA is held accountable for the blatant disregard for safety it is showing by understaffing its facilities, working controllers past their breaking points and refusing to work with us to settle an ongoing contract negotiating impasse that has created the largest mass exodus of both veteran controllers and trainees we have seen since 1981? The worsening loss of veteran controller talent, experience and savvy in our nation’s airport towers and radar centers is a complete hemorrhaging of the FAA’s lifeblood. This patient is now on life support.

             “The facts are crystal clear: Both the NTSB and the GAO are now on record saying controller fatigue affects runway safety. And now the GAO has said fatigue is created by working overtime, which in turn is necessitated by staffing shortages. Furthermore, the Department of Transportation Inspector General last February cited the breakdown in contract talks as the reason so many controllers left the FAA last year. This is game, set and match. There is nowhere else the FAA can run and hide from this staffing crisis and deny its existence. While these various well-respected governmental agencies all are seeking to force the FAA to heed these numerous warnings of safety problems before a catastrophic event occurs, it is our fear that these types of reports will continue to fall on deaf FAA ears. For the FAA to continue to declare the system safe just because there haven’t been any major catastrophic losses of life on our nation’s runways and skies in the past year is unconscionable, considering all of the indicators pointing to a high risk of tragedy. 

           “Pure and simple, this FAA has alienated, bullied and angered its entire workforce with imposed work rules and pay cuts and caused 1,558 controllers (more than 10 percent of the workforce) and trainees to leave their posts in fiscal year 2007, including a staggering and unprecedented 47 percent of the 856 retirees who left in their first year of retirement eligibility, giving up several years of service in order to leave the sinking FAA ship as soon as possible. We don’t need another promise, or strategic plan. The FAA’s efforts on staffing have failed. And, as the GAO stated today, the FAA is doing nothing to mitigate the effects of fatigue. The time to act is now, not after a catastrophe. The agency needs to sit down and settle the labor problems with its unions, stop the bleeding of experienced controllers and find ways to entice the best and brightest to stay on the job and fix these safety problems with a fully staffed and rested workforce.” 

In addition, Forrey was pleased to see the GAO report rightly criticize the FAA for cost increases and delays that have plagued the most effective runway safety technology controllers have ever worked with: ASDE-X (Airport Surface Detection Equipment, Model X). Forrey said an Oct. 31 DOT Inspector General Report (http://www.oig.dot.gov/sites/dot/files/pdfdocs/WEB_ASDE-X_10-31-07.pdf) made the following points about ASDE-X:

-            54 percent of runway incursions are caused by pilot errors, yet the FAA took out the direct-warning-to-pilots feature from the latest version of ASDE-X. NTSB said that, without the direct warning capability, the technology is unacceptable.

-            Runway incursions have been on NTSB's "most wanted safety improvement list" since 1990 and the FAA still doesn't have a workable solution.

-            The FAA has spent seven years and over $378 million on ASDE-X, yet only nine out of the 35 systems at airports around the country are in operation.

-            The technology does not work on intersecting runways and converging taxiways.  Two airplanes came within 100 feet of each other at the runway intersection at O'Hare in March 2006, and two aircraft collided on converging taxiways in January, 2007, at Milwaukee.

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