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Air Traffic Controller Shortage Snarls East Coast Traffic - (3/18/2008)

CONTACT:     Phil Barbarello, NATCA Eastern Region VP, 516-381-6424; Rich Santa, NATCA Washington Center Facility Representative, 240-291-1266  

LEESBURG, Va. – A worsening air traffic controller shortage at one of the nation’s busiest radar control centers, Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center, forced the Federal Aviation Administration to delay flights headed to, from or above the nation’s capital region on several occasions Saturday (March 15). The episode is another sign of trouble for the busy spring/summer travel season ahead as the FAA fails to stem massive losses of veteran controllers fed up with imposed work rules and pay freezes.

Washington Center controls a large swath of airspace extending from New Jersey to the Carolinas, west to the Appalachian Mountains. Coordinating closely with Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), this facility works flights to and from the three major Washington, D.C./Baltimore metropolitan area airports. 

The word “staffing” is referenced numerous times as a reason for flight restrictions on FAA activity logs for Washington Center (ZDC), which is also confirmed by the logs for Potomac TRACON (PCT).

See the highlighted sections on the two logs here (Note: times on logs are Zulu, which is four hours ahead of EDT):



The worst of the staffing problems were in a part of Washington Center called “Area 6,” in which controllers work airspace over both North Carolina and South Carolina. On Saturday at 7:40 a.m. EDT, the FAA log summary indicates that the Area 6 FAA supervisor reported “reduced staffing.” There were just four fully certified controllers on duty, with one trainee. Appropriate staffing is eight to nine fully certified controllers. The log shows that at 7:45 a.m. EDT, spacing between flights (known as “miles in trail,” or MIT) along the East Coast was increased by FAA management officials “due to staffing.” 

At 9:04 a.m. EDT, because there were not enough controllers to safely handle the traffic volume, a ground stop was issued for all traffic departing Washington airports and headed for one particular radar position, called the DAILY fix, on an airway that aircraft use to travel south to places such as Florida, Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C. A ground stop means departing flights were forced to remain on the ground. 

At one point, according to FAA logs from Potomac TRACON, Washington Center was forced to put 50 miles between aircraft using the DAILY fix “due to staffing.” The log states that 30-minute departure delays “were reported as (a) result.” The facility worked with Washington Center to “reroute these aircraft,” the log states.

Normal spacing between flights on this air route is 15-20 miles, so the restriction of 50 miles on Saturday represented more than double the normal spacing. The normal spacing on other air routes handled by Washington Center ranges from 10-25 miles.

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