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Unsafe Operational Incidents on the Rise at Indianapolis Air Traffic Facilities Due to Forced Overtime and Fatigue - (5/28/2008)

CONTACTS: Indianapolis Center Facility Representative Thomas Thompson, (317) 331-3423; Indianapolis Tower Facility Representative Darren Groce, (317) 417-3578; NATCA National Office, Alexandra Caldwell, 202-220-9813, acaldwell@natcadc.org


INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Only halfway through the year the number of incidents in which a plane unsafely enters another controller’s airspace has surpassed last year’s total at Indianapolis air route traffic control center.


The sixth busiest radar center in the country, Indianapolis Center oversees more than 71,000 square miles of airspace over a seven-state area.  The number of operational deviations (ODs), an incident where an aircraft gets too close or enters another controller’s area of jurisdiction without prior coordination and approval, has increased at an alarming rate at the facility – from two ODs in 2006 to 31 in 2007.  Said Indianapolis Center Facility Representative Thomas Thompson:  “One of the most basic principles to separating aircraft is to know when and where those planes are going to be. Every time there is an operational deviation this principle is lost and the potential exists for very tragic results.”  Only five months into the year the facility has already had 35 operational deviations, surpassing their total for 2007.


Indianapolis Tower has seen its rate of operational errors (OEs), mistakes resulting in aircraft coming closer to one another than FAA rules allow, rise as well.  With twelve operational errors in all of 2007 the facility is on schedule to surpass that total with six operational errors only five months into the year.


Too few controllers are watching too many planes at both facilities – increasing the occurrence of unsafe incidents such as operational errors and deviations as seen at both Indianapolis facilities.  Fourteen of the 35 incidents at Indianapolis Center occurred in an area of the facility that was the one of the most short-staffed. 


"The FAA’s adjustments to our work schedules are leading to fatigue, increasing the opportunity for mistakes,” said Thompson.  "To compensate for the loss of veteran controllers the FAA is combining positions, with one controller working on a position where previously there had been as many as two, three or even four. The effect this increased workload has on controller fatigue is a recipe for disaster and should alarm the flying public."  Forced overtime at both Indianapolis facilities, as well as those facilities across the country, is becoming increasingly common as the staffing situation deteriorates with each controller retirement. At Indianapolis Center controllers have come into work expecting to end their eight-hour shift at 1 a.m. but have been forced to stay until 3 a.m. with very little notice. 


Every controller at Indianapolis tower, including trainees, is working mandatory overtime.  So far in 2008 the amount of mandatory overtime forced upon each controller at the tower averages around 60 hours or about seven extra shifts.   Said Indianapolis Tower Facility Representative Darren Groce:  “Due to mandatory overtime, ten-hour workdays and six-day work weeks have become a way of life.  Each extra hour of overtime forced upon a controller is an hour they could have rested or relaxed – away from the facility, from the stress of the job.”


Forced to suffer under the FAA’s imposed work rules since September 2006, twenty controllers have retired from Indianapolis Center in the past two and a half years and not a single retirement was mandatory.  Out of the 320 current CPCs (Certified Professional Controllers) 39 are eligible to retire now and could leave at anytime.  A total of 53 could leave by the end of the year; 69 could be gone by the end of 2009 and though the facility has 66 trainees only six of them are close to certification.


Ten controllers have retired from Indianapolis Tower since the FAA imposed its work rules, all retiring as soon as they were eligible to do so.  Though the FAA’s staffing numbers deem 43 to 53 to be a proper staffing range at the facility there are only 34 CPCS, ten of which could retire by the end of year.  Two more controllers are working past age 56 with a waiver and could retire soon as well.  Indianapolis tower could lose more than 25 percent of its CPCs by the end of the year with no trainees able to replace those retiring any time soon – of Indianapolis tower’s five trainees not a single one is close to reaching certification.  Said Groce:  “The FAA has promised that our facility is on schedule to receive roughly eight trainees to replace those retiring but, considering it can take a year to a year and half for a new trainee to become fully certified, they’re over a year too late – not to mention there aren’t nearly enough to replace those veteran controllers that are leaving.”




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