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Shoestring Staffing at Major Washington Regional Radar Facility Forces Closure of Busy Airspace; Raleigh Traffic Most Affected - (6/20/2009)

CONTACT:  Curt Johnson, NATCA Washington Center, 571-242-2660     

LEESBURG, Va. – The Federal Aviation Administration on Friday evening was forced to close several air corridors above eastern North Carolina for 30 minutes as a desperation move to avoid a serious safety risk when its poor management and woeful staffing reached this breaking point at Washington Center: One controller, forced to do the job of two for four hours alone with nobody to relieve him, working two sectors of airspace at the end of a long shift that included forced overtime.              

The closure, from 5:25 p.m. EDT to approximately 6 p.m., created the biggest impact on Raleigh-Durham, N.C., traffic. Eastbound departures were delayed for an hour, forced to wait on the ground at the airport. Those flights already airborne were forced to be re-routed, having the same fuel-burning, delay-inducing negative effect as if a giant thunderstorm covered eastern North Carolina.              

Washington Center is the nation’s third busiest air traffic control facility, handling more than 2.7 million flights a year traversing a large chunk of busy airspace extending north to southern New Jersey, south to the Carolinas and west to the middle of West Virginia. Much like a hospital closing down blocks of rooms because it doesn’t have enough doctors and nurses – forcing existing staff to work more patients short-handed – Washington Center FAA management declared what is called “ATC-0” in two airspace sectors that stretch north-south from an area starting northwest of Wilmington, N.C., meaning the airspace was shut down.              

Friday’s incident was just the latest symptom of chronic management failures surrounding the FAA’s nearly two-year long effort to redesign the airspace boundaries that controllers work at the facility, shrinking the number of separate areas of jurisdiction from eight to seven. The project, undertaken to try and hide the staffing problem prevalent at Washington Center for several years, specifically excluded NATCA. As a result, the current situation has created a proverbial “no man’s land” – three total sectors of airspace in eastern North Carolina virtually ignored by the FAA as far as ensuring adequate staffing and training.              

There are no trainees assigned to these sectors. There are just five veteran controllers certified to work this airspace, but the training given to them was rushed and inadequate, leaving them uncomfortable handling busy times of their shifts. There is very little to no relief available, meaning long hours on position, forced overtime and many six-day weeks, leading to chronic fatigue and the loss of focus.

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