STUDY: Air-traffic agency blames lack of staffers for the increase in runway mistakes.
By Art Marroquin
A shortage in air-traffic controllers led to 55 so-called runway incursions reported at Los Angeles International Airport since October 2001, eight of which occurred in the past year, according to a study released this week.
An understaffed control tower at LAX means longer work hours and more duties for fatigued air-traffic controllers, leading to an increased likelihood for serious mistakes on the runway, according to a report by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
"Quite often, controllers are the last line of defense and we see pilots doing something that they are not supposed to do, so part of our job is to stop them," said Michael Foote, president of NATCA's membership at the LAX tower.
"The longer you work people, the more fatigued they become and the less chance you have of a controller catching a pilot's mistakes," Foote said. "We need more controllers to take up the slack."
However, Federal Aviation Administration officials argued that the runway incursions reported at LAX were not related to alleged staffing shortages in the control tower.
"Most runway incursions are due to pilot error," said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman. "Even though some can be attributed to controller error, none of those controller errors were caused by insufficient staffing levels."
The issue has become so heated that the FAA and the union can't even agree how many employees are working in the LAX tower, which is authorized for up to 47 air-traffic controllers.
FAA officials said that 35 certified controllers and 11 trainees work in the tower. NATCA officials reported that 33 certified controllers and 10 trainees work in the tower.
In contrast, staffing hit a peak in January 2004, when 46 certified controllers and three trainees worked at the LAX tower, according to NATCA.
The high number of trainees currently working at the LAX control tower caught the attention of Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl.
Rosendahl said he is concerned that too many new hires are working in the tower, while the number of experienced air-traffic controllers at LAX has diminished.
"I want to see more controllers with more experience up in those towers now," said Rosendahl, whose district includes LAX. "The FAA needs to hire more qualified controllers at LAX andthe practice of using this as a training ground for inexperienced controllers."
New hires are not ready to direct traffic, as it usually takes three to five years to certify a controller.
"We're doing everything we can to train these new controllers, but that takes time," Gregor said.
In the meantime, Rosendahl said he will work with other elected leaders in asking the FAA to send more air traffic controllers to LAX.
Additionally, the City Council will likely direct Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that operates LAX, to independently study the need for more controllers.
"Even though it's a federal issue, we need to start doing something locally," he said.
NATCA's study was released as the U.S. Senate is poised to consider the FAA's reauthorization act.
Last month, the House of Representatives approved the measure, which would require the FAA and the union to revive failed negotiations over wages and other issues.
The FAA declared an impasse when talks with the controllers' union turned sour, then imposed a contract that went into effect in September 2006. Congress, which was dominated by Republicans at the time, did not intervene in the matter.
The Bush administration has threatened to veto the FAA reauthorization bill if it forces the agency back to the bargaining table.
NATCA claims that about 800 experienced air-traffic controllers have retired over the imposed contract, saying they do not want to work for an employer that refuses to give them a raise as the number of flights continues to go up nationwide.
There are 11,467 experienced controllers left in the United States, according to the union. That's an 11-year low, and more than 1,100 fewer than the number of controllers working during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We're losing our best controllers to a bad deal forced on us," Foote said. "Impacts on controller staffing will have adverse impacts on runway safety."
Although union officials claim that fewer controllers are handling more flights at the nation's airports, LAX is not one of those examples, according to the FAA.
LAX logged 657,000 flights last year, down from 785,000 flights in 2000, the FAA reported.
"Fewer flights means the tower is not nearly as busy as it was seven years ago," Gregor said. "The simple fact is that safety is not compromised by staffing reductions, but there are rare times when some good air-traffic controllers make bad mistakes."
Such was the case Aug. 16, when two airplanes came within 37 feet of each other during one of the most recent runway incursions reported at LAX.
The pilot of a WestJet Boeing 737 arriving from Canada landed on one of LAX's northern runways and switched radio frequencies to the ground traffic controller before receiving final instruction from the air traffic controller, according to the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board.
The ground controller then mistakenly cleared the pilot to cross the runway and proceed to a terminal gate, believing that an air traffic controller had already given the go-ahead.
As a result, the WestJet plane nearly collided with a Northwest Airlines Airbus A320 that was taking off for Memphis, Tenn.
The near-collision prompted calls for improved safety and a possible reconfiguration of the north airfield at LAX.
Foote, however, said millions of dollars budgeted to modernize LAX and improve airfield safety could be better spent on hiring more staffers in the control tower.
"Instead of spending billions of dollars moving runways, you could improve air traffic safety by hiring more qualified controllers to watch those runways," Foote said. "Spend the money on improving air traffic safety, and you'll get a whole lot more out of it."