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New Low for Safety Margin at Critically Short-Staffed Atlanta TRACON: 18 Safety Incidents in 61 Days - (12/3/2008)

CONTACT:   Dan Ellenberger, NATCA Atlanta TRACON facility representative, 678-464-7169; Doug Church, NATCA National Office, 301-346-8245

PEACHTREE CITY, Ga. – The airspace around the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International, is safe, thanks to the dedication and skill of an increasingly overburdened, fatigued and understaffed workforce of experienced air traffic controllers at the Atlanta Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON). However, the margin of safety is eroding every day and the proof is emerging in the form of a dangerous and alarming increase in safety incidents.

There were two more operational errors last weekend at the facility – incidents in which planes get closer than Federal Aviation Administration minimum separation rules allow – which bring the total number of safety incidents since October 1 to a whopping 18. That’s 18 in 61 days. This coming after the TRACON experienced a doubling of its error total in fiscal year 2008, which ended on Sept. 30. There were 88 total incidents in FY08.

Of the 18 incidents so far in the past two months, eight were operational errors and six were operational deviations in which planes violate airspace boundaries. Four more are what the FAA now calls “proximity events,” which are operational errors that the agency simply renamed to reduce the overall numbers, describe them as non events and then punish the controllers.

The experience level of the workforce at the TRACON continues to drop. In April, there were 67 fully certified controllers on staff, with 24 trainees. Today, there are 65 fully certified controllers on staff with 30 trainees.

“Inexperience and too much training going on results in a less safe operation and our error total reflects that,” Atlanta TRACON NATCA Facility Representative Dan Ellenberger said. “Controllers here didn’t just wake up this year and forget how to do their jobs. We have enormous pride in our work but we cannot sit by and watch this critical facility keep going down the tubes due to gross FAA mismanagement and continued failures that have eroded our ability to keep the skies as safe as possible.”

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