Shifting S. California Airspace May Make Things Worse

A dangerous mix of understaffing and heavy workloads at the facility responsible for guiding airplanes through the Inland Empire is about to get worse, an air traffic controllers union representative said.

Plans to add the airspace around Palm Springs to the controllers' responsibilities starting this summer will increase the likelihood of delays and even disasters at local airports, said Tony Vella, president of a local National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

"It needs to be put off until they have enough certified air traffic controllers in this building," said Vella, who represents workers at Southern California Terminal Radar Approach in San Diego.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the operation, counters that the coming change is a simple consolidation that'll save millions of dollars and won't impact safety in the slightest.

Union complaints that safety will suffer are completely off base, said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman.

"We're never going to do anything that is unsafe," he said. "Safety is the reason we exist."

The TRACON facility in San Diego monitors air traffic roughly from the Mexican border to north of the San Fernando Valley and east to the Banning area. The territory is divided into five sectors - one of which covers a portion of the Inland Empire.

A separate TRACON facility in Palm Springs monitors the air traffic around Palm Springs International Airport.

Air traffic controllers at the TRACON facilities guide aircraft until they get within three to seven miles of their destination, where the airports' individual control towers take over.

Gregor said the Palm Springs operation - housed in a double-wide trailer - is slated to move to the San Diego facility in June, thanks to years of deterioration.

Rather than spend millions of dollars constructing a new Palm Springs facility, it makes sense to shift the work to the San Diego facility, Gregor said. Because the air traffic controllers' work involves staring at radar screens, it doesn't matter whether they're one mile from the airport or 100 miles, he said.

"We need to be financially responsible," Gregor said. "We can't be throwing money where we don't need to be throwing money."

The San Diego facility handles more than 2.2 million aircraft operations each year. The Palm Springs territory will add another 200,000, Vella said.

The new airspace will fall under the watch of the controllers who handle the Inland Empire sector, Vella said. That sector should be staffed by 39 air traffic controllers, but currently only has 27, largely thanks to retirements, Vella said. It stands to lose another five or six to retirement by the end of the year, he said.

"They're already down 30 percent," he said. "Now they're going to have to accept responsibility for another 200,000 operations per year."

That's going to force many controllers who handle the area to work six-day-a-week, 10-hour-a-day work weeks, Vella said.

That type of schedule is already in place for many workers at the San Diego facility, which has been hit hard by retirements, he said. Overall, the facility should have 260 fully certified controllers under ideal conditions, but only has 187, he said.

The demands can cause fatigue, which in turn heighten the risk for error, Vella said. They can also cause delays as pilots wait their turns to communicate with controllers, he said.

Gregor said the union's numbers are wrong.

The target of 260 controllers is from an expired contract that didn't reflect actual need, he said.

The current contract sets a range of between 186 and 228 controllers, and the facility has 215, including qualified trainees, he said.

While the FAA doesn't have numbers available by sector, the Inland Empire's sector will in fact have enough people to handle the new work, he said.

"We have sufficient controllers to absorb Palm Springs," Gregor said. "Palm Springs is not a complicated airspace to work."

Contrary to Vella's claims, the move won't require controllers to take on the six-day schedule, he said.

He also took issue with union complaints that the use of a simulator - rather than live, on-the-job training - to prepare controllers to handle the Palm Springs airspace poses safety concerns.

Simulators have been used successfully in the past and will adequately prepare workers for the new territory, Gregor said.

The idea that the FAA would knowingly ignore safety concerns doesn't make sense, he said.

"Our air traffic operation is absolutely safe now and it will continue to be absolutely safe as we do the financially responsible thing by consolidating," Gregor said.

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