Mar. 30 -- The control tower at Orlando International Airport is so short on staff that one day earlier this month the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily cut by almost half the number of planes that could land per hour.
The incident on March 15, in which air traffic headed south to Orlando was slowed, came to light in a memorandum obtained by the Sentinel and underscores growing concern over a nationwide staffing shortage in air-traffic towers and radar centers.
Thousands of controllers, hired in 1981 after President Reagan's mass firing of striking workers, are heading to retirement at the same time.
In Orlando, where six-day workweeks and 10-hour days are not uncommon for some controllers, the problem could worsen this summer as air traffic grows busier during the vacation season and more controllers are expected to retire.
"It's wearing us down," said Orlando controller and local union representative Scott Burks. "We don't want to wait until something dramatic happens to fix the issue."
FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said the slowing of air traffic March 15 -- which she called a "rare" event -- happened after "a couple" of people called in sick and a manager was unable to find anyone else to work. Thunderstorms further complicated matters, she said, making the air-traffic flow more difficult that day.
In a memorandum dated March 16, Bob Curry, an Orlando operations manager, explains how he reduced the rate of aircraft approaching Orlando from Jacksonville airspace a day earlier "due to staffing."
He then detailed how FAA administrators discussed the move and created new protocol for slowing traffic into Orlando International because of staffing deficiencies.
"Needless to say, if you feel you need to make this call due to staffing, get an early start and verify that you have exhausted all other means of staffing the facility to handle the traffic demand," Curry wrote.
He reduced the maximum number of aircraft Orlando could receive from the north to 45 per hour. On a normal day the maximum is 80, though the numbers rarely reach that high and the average is 43 per hour, Bergen said.
New hires in training
Currently there are 52 certified controllers to fill the allotted 69 to 85 positions in Orlando, Bergen said. Eight people who are still in training are certified to work some controller jobs, she said. And an additional eight people are in earlier stages of training and cannot work as controllers.
In the next few months, eight more new hires recruited from the military will report to the facility and begin training, she said. The FAA expects to add eight more on top of that by the end of the year for a total of 84 people.
At least 11 controllers are expected to retire in Orlando this year, followed by 26 more before 2010, according to the FAA.
The staffing situation and its potential to reduce an airport's ability to land and take off planes at full capacity has recently sparked a discussion among FAA managers about how to handle the issue, which has become politically sensitive in tense talks with the union.
Curry's memo was followed by an e-mail March 22 from Tom Denny, an FAA manager in North Carolina, who warned other managers not to cite "staffing" when other issues such as sick leave or scheduling could be responsible.
He said the use of the word "staffing" to describe the reason an airport tower cannot operate to full capacity was brought up in a manager's teleconference.
"Be advised that anytime a facility uses the word STAFFING, you can rest assured it will be seen immediately in writing at the Headquarters level, and via Blackberry," Denny wrote.
He later noted an ongoing Department of Transportation Inspector General investigation into staffing at FAA towers.Denny said Thursday that he couldn't discuss the e-mail and referred questions to a spokeswoman.
In a third, undated memorandum sent on or before March 20, another FAA administrator cited Orlando, the state's busiest passenger airport, as having a prolonged staffing problem. Orlando logs more than 900 takeoffs and landings each day.
"At least twice this week, we were notified of staffing issues that precluded the system from providing the utmost operational efficiency + service to our customers," wrote Operations Director Mike Sammartino.
He went on to write, "Orlando has identified staffing to be problematic for the next year."
Sammartino has a different take on citing "staffing" as the reason for backups.
"From our perspective . . . we need to identify 'staffing' as a causal factor if the operation is reduced," he wrote.
Sammartino could not be reached for comment Thursday.
A troubled history
Burks, the Orlando controller, said he agreed with Sammartino.
"If it's a staffing issue, let's call it a staffing issue and not sugarcoat it," Burks said.
Large numbers of retirements, a problem some have predicted for years, have ignited increased tension in the historically rancorous relationship between the union and the federal agency.
In 1981, Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking controllers. Now, many of their replacements are reaching retirement age at the same time, depleting large numbers of the 14,618 national controller work force each year.
The FAA hired 1,116 new controller trainees in 2006.
The average compensation for controllers in Orlando, including benefits, is $148,000 a year. Bergen said about half the overtime scheduled is voluntary and the other half is assigned.
She said no controller can work more than 10 hours a day or six days a week.
The extra hours are not a potential safety hazard, she said.
Controllers, who hold what is often cited as one of the most stressful jobs in the U.S., are tasked with guiding hundreds of aircraft in a given day through takeoffs, landings or flying through airspace. For that reason, the FAA says the controllers can stay "on position" only for two hours at a time without a break.
Burks said up to 2 hours and 45 minutes has been spent "on position" by some controllers.
"We're going over two hours on a regular basis," he said.
Bergen said spending nearly three hours "on position" without a break is not common.
"We can't say it's never happened," she said. "But it would be very, very rare."
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