3 Decertified in Memphis when Jets Landed Too Close Together

Two air traffic controllers and a supervisor have been decertified as a result of errors that caused three planes at Memphis International Airport to land too close together in mid-February.

The controllers will receive as much as 10 hours of retraining and will be required to be recertified. The supervisor, at least for the short term, has been assigned to administrative duty.

Decertification is designed to identify areas in which employees need retraining and is not considered disciplinary. The training could take days or weeks, said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.

The incidents happened shortly after noon Feb. 13 and involved two FedEx planes and two regional jets flown by Pinnacle Airlines.

The FAA requires five miles of separation between heavy jets and small jets to keep the smaller planes from flying into the turbulence large jets create.

In two cases last week, the distance was shortened to 4.85 and 4.86 miles after a FedEx pilot twice reduced speed before he attempted to land due to an auto-throttle problem.

The second time speed was reduced, it also shortened the mandatory 1.5-mile lateral distance required between planes landing on adjacent runways.

While the FAA last week said three operational errors in rapid succession was "very unusual," it characterized the loss of separation as minor.

Controllers say staffing levels in Memphis are causing them to work more overtime, increasing the possibility of exhaustion-related errors.

"Last August, we had 64 fully certified controllers," said Pete Sufka, local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents air traffic controllers. "Come this September, will be down to 52 or 53."

He blames the attrition on retirements and controllers leaving for bigger airports.

"Memphis has always been a steppingstone to higher-level facilities because during our peaks, we work the same level of traffic you have in Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago," he said.

But because of pay changes imposed by the FAA last year, controllers coming to Memphis from smaller facilities don't qualify for raises.

Sufka says it means fewer people are willing to work the heavy traffic during FedEx peak periods.

Of the five new hires assigned to Memphis in the past eight months, three have left, Sufka said, "including one who decided he could do better by starting a lawn-mowing service.

"Since the start of the year, we've been having more and more scheduled overtime. My guess is that some time this summer, most - if not all - controllers are going to be assigned six-day workweeks," Sufka said.

Although the FAA agrees that the pay changes were imposed Sept. 1, it says the authority came from Congress.

"We negotiated with the union for nine months and came to agreements on almost all the issues except for pay and benefits," said Laura Brown, FAA spokeswoman.

When an impasse was declared, the FAA sent its last offer to Congress, which had 60 days to make changes.

When there were none, the offer was imposed, which includes annual raises but "slightly lower pay rates for controllers coming in as trainees," Brown said.

"Why should controllers in Memphis get more money? We have lots of other busy facilities around the country."

The FAA, facing massive retirements among workers hired after the air traffic control strike in 1981, says it hired 1,100 controllers last year and is on target to hire 1,400 this year.

The FAA says it has a pool of "more than 2,000 controllers waiting to be hired.

"We are having absolutely no trouble attracting controllers," Brown said. "The reason is that while they are being trained in their first year, they're making close to $50,000. After five years, they're making more than $90,000."

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