Closure Concerns Officials; Air Traffic Control: Members of Congress and Others Don't Want a Desert Center Shuttered

Officials plan to move Palm Springs International ATC to a centralized facility more than 100 miles away


PALM SPRINGS

When planes approach Palm Springs International Airport from various directions, air traffic controllers using radar funnel them into orderly lines for landing. The same controllers, working from a double-wide trailer at the airport, guide departing flights once they are miles away from Palm Springs.

But federal aviation officials plan to move these services next month to a centralized facility more than 100 miles away in San Diego. A group of U.S. representatives and senators are questioning the safety of the move and say the San Diego facility, which serves LA/Ontario International Airport, March Air Reserve Base, Los Angeles International Airport and others, is already understaffed and overburdened.

The resulting controversy has led to alterations to a U.S. Senate bill reauthorizing funding for the Federal Aviation Administration. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., added language this month that would delay the Palm Springs consolidation until additional reviews can verify its safety.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, Rep. Joe Baca, D-Rialto, and others have also questioned the FAA's decision. The Palm Springs City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to support Boxer.

In response, high-level FAA officials hosted a public meeting Thursday at a local senior center to explain why they are moving the Palm Springs Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON, to the Southern California TRACON in San Diego.

"We want to make sure everyone understands the reasons for consolidating Palm Springs TRACON with Southern California TRACON and that they understand that it makes sense from a safety, efficiency and financial perspective," FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said in a phone interview, adding: "There will be absolutely no discernible difference whatsoever to the traveling public or to pilots."

The move, slated for June 6, means the FAA can save hundreds of thousands of dollars, which they would otherwise spend building new TRACON facilities for the rapidly growing Palm Springs airport, Gregor said.

The Southern California TRACON serves most airports in Southern California and guided about 2.2 million planes over roughly 9,000 square miles last year, making the facility one of the busiest in the world, Gregor said. It is adequately staffed, and the added flights from the Palm Springs TRACON would have minimal impact on workloads, Gregor said.

But members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a 14,500-strong union, disagree.

"They are placing, in our opinion, cost-cutting above public safety," said Jim Corey, Palm Springs' union president and an air traffic controller at the airport. "It is dead wrong, and I hope someone doesn't have to die before the FAA realizes it."

Most of Palm Spring International Airport's 15 air traffic controllers would remain at the airport and perform other duties, such as ground and tower control, Corey said. They would also face an estimated 8 percent pay cut, he said.

The union says the staff in San Diego is stretched to its limit and cannot handle the additional workload without making more operational errors and causing delays.

"We have people that are working six-day work weeks and ten-hour days, and there's just chronic fatigue throughout the building," said Tony Vella, local union president and an air traffic controller at the Southern California TRACON.

The union and Bono contend that the facility is operating with only about 188 of its authorized 261 controllers.

Gregor disputes that, saying the FAA has 197 certified controllers there, well within the targeted staffing range of 186-228.

While some controllers in San Diego may choose to work overtime on a regular basis, that does not mean the facility is understaffed, he added.

LA/Ontario International Airport, which has relied on the Southern California TRACON since the early 1990s, has been very pleased with the facility's service, airport spokeswoman Maria Tesoro-Fermin said.

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