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NATCA Testifies on Staffing Crisis before House Aviation Subcommittee - (6/11/2008)

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) today is on Capitol Hill to testify on air traffic control facility staffing issues before the House Aviation Subcommittee.

To read the full testimony submitted:

Patrick Forrey, NATCA President

Don Chapman, Philadelphia Tower and TRACON NATCA Facility Representative

Melvin Davis, Southern California TRACON NATCA Facility Representative

Steve Wallace, Miami Center NATCA Facility Representative

Forrey’s five-minute opening statement:

“Chairmen Oberstar and Costello, Ranking Members Mica and Petri, distinguished Members of the Subcommittee,

My written testimony should be before each of you.  In the interest of time, I will try to summarize and keep my remarks short, and then answer any questions that any of the Members may have.

Let me begin by thanking you, Mr. Chairman, for your understanding, attention and commitment to air traffic controller staffing levels, and for holding this hearing, on this important issue.

Under your leadership, the House passed a comprehensive bill to address the many issues facing the national airspace system, including controller retention and staffing levels, which is the subject of today's hearing. 

The men and women of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association hope that the Senate will follow suit, and reconsider the FAA Reauthorization and Modernization Act that, unfortunately, fell victim to jurisdictional and procedural bickering last month.

With the current authorization set to expire June 30th, and with unmatched controller attrition rates exceeding 4 per day, it has never been more imperative to address this issue than it is today.

 

The National Airpace System is currently experiencing an unprecedented, and unsustainable loss of air traffic controllers.  And those that have followed this issue know what NATCA attributes the current retirement wave to. 

But before I get to that portion of my testimony, I wanted to tell the Subcommittee that the men and women I represent are among the most dedicated and professional employees found in government. 

Every day I am reminded that their first commitment has always been and continues to be, the safe operation of our National Airspace System. 

The safety of the flying public will always be the priority of the union, and of all the safety related professionals that work for the FAA.  I worry that sometimes, that fact might get lost on Members of the Subcommittee, because of the focus on our Labor dispute with the Agency.

Let me be clear:  This country is facing an air traffic controller staffing crisis.  The crisis is real.  The crisis is serious.  And the crisis is now. 

Those losses are leading to insufficient staffing levels across the country, requiring more use of overtime, and leading to increased fatigue. 

All of this adds up to a burned out workforce, and an unacceptable compromise to safety.

The FAA touts that they are hiring enough trainees to make up for the retiring veterans, and that they are certifying faster than before. 

However between FY2005 and the end of FY2007, of the 3450 trainees still employed by the FAA, only 538 have achieved full certification.  That’s fewer than 16%!  Of the 525 hired and still employed in the first six months of FY2008, only 4 have fully certified.

Before the imposition of the imposed work rules, which the FAA continues to mislabel as a contract, the Agency told Congress and this Subcommittee, that there would not be a mass exodus of air traffic controllers. Unfortunately, the FAA was wrong.

In June of 2006, the FAA predicted that 950 controllers would leave the workforce in FY2007. 

The actual attrition number for controllers in FY2007 was 1,622 – 70 percent higher than the Agency’s prediction. 

Halfway through FY2008, we are down another 960 controllers and trainees, and on pace to break last year’s staggering losses.

The FAA failed to plan for the retirement wave by hiring only 13 controllers in 2004.

They exacerbated that wave by prematurely cutting off contract negotiations in 2006, and caused an attrition tsunami that has seen nearly 2,700 controllers and trainees leave the system since.

It is not a coincidence that delays, near misses, and runway incursions have all increased as the number of controllers has diminished.

In facilities across the country, and most notably in our busiest towers, centers and TRACONs, controllers are spending more time on position, and working more airplanes with fewer certified controllers since 1992, resulting in a dangerously fatigued workforce.

Aviation delays have increased since the work rules were imposed in 2006, and in our estimate, this is no coincidence. 

FY2007 saw the number of delayed aircraft increase by more then 20,000 over the previous year, far outpacing the .2 percent increase in operations. 

Last month, the Joint Economic Committee released a report that found that flight delays cost the U.S. economy an astounding $41 billion last year, while travelers lost a jaw-dropping 320 million hours in wasted time.

Similarly, a recent study by the Travel Industry Association determined that passengers’ concerns with delays have led them to bypass air travel all together, costing the economy an additional $26 billion. 

The FAA's response has been to unilaterally implement other misguided policies, that work only to ensure that adequate staffing level targets continue to be missed.

The FAA's insistence on moving ahead with controversial consolidations, de-combinings and other realignments of facilities and services requires more, not less controllers, cost more per operation, and results in more operational errors when compared to other split facilities.

The Agency also continues to sell NextGen as the cure-all for all aviation woes, from congestion, to safety, to efficient fuel use, and even controller staffing levels. 

But I remind Members of the Subcommittee, that NextGen is at least two decades away.  Before we hang our hat on this still-conceptual program to take aviation to the next generation, let us fix the problems of the NowGen air traffic control system.

Rather than taking a blind leap of faith, NATCA makes the following recommendations to help build a solid foundation that will safely bridge the gap between NowGen and NextGen.

First, the FAA and NATCA must return to the bargaining table to complete contract negotiations.  Doing so will help to retain the veteran controllers that are leaving the system at unsustainable record levels. 

These veteran controllers are responsible for on-the-job training that turns a trainee into a certified controller, and their retention is essential to maintaining safe operation of the system.

Second, the FAA must work with NATCA and the National Academy of Sciences, or another independent third party, to not only re-establish scientifically-based staffing ranges for each facility, but also to establish concrete limits on trainee ratios at the facility level. 

These ratios, along with the current Trainee/Certified Professional Controller breakdown of the workforce by facility, must be published in the FAA’s annual workforce plan.

Third, standardized training must continue to be the foundation for the development of skilled and capable air traffic controllers.  The FAA must stop issuing blanket waivers on training to chronically understaffed facilities.

Finally, in order to avoid such crises in the future, the FAA must work collaboratively and cooperatively with NATCA, on all issues affecting air traffic controllers or their operations.

This concludes my oral statement, and I look forwarding to answering any questions the Subcommittee might have.”


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