Official Calls for More Air Traffic Staffing in Vegas

U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley and local members of a union representing air traffic controllers on Monday called on the Federal Aviation Administration to hire more traffic-coordination personnel at McCarran International Airport.

At a press conference, Berkley, D-Nev., distributed a letter she sent Monday to Marion Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, expressing concern about staffing levels inside the Las Vegas Terminal Radar Approach Control, which monitors flights within a 50-mile radius of McCarran.

Berkley noted in her letter that even though a 2003 labor agreement between the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association workers' union authorized 56 traffic controllers inside the Las Vegas TRACON, the facility has just 34 fully certified controllers, despite a 25 percent increase in domestic air traffic into McCarran since 2003.

Though McCarran maintains an "impeccable safety record," Berkley wrote, the airport has experienced 24 "operational errors" in the past two years. When the Las Vegas TRACON had 50 certified controllers in 2000, there were no operational errors at the airport, she wrote.

Operational errors occur when air-traffic controllers let airplanes get closer to each other than legal limits allow, either on the ground or in the air.

"My goal is to ensure that (McCarran) continues to be among the safest airports," Berkley said at a press conference called to highlight the issue. "The airport is essential to our economy. It's important we take every step possible to prevent the erosion of safety at McCarran."

Bryan Baker, president of the Las Vegas TRACON, said at the press conference that the Federal Aviation Administration has been "unwilling or unable" to bring in additional air-traffic controllers in recent years.

Baker said the agency manipulates controller numbers to include staff members who are in training and who thus aren't fully certified. The agency officially states that it has 48 controllers at TRACON, but that number includes 14 trainees who aren't fully certified to monitor all air traffic, he said.

He also said the administration isn't prepared to replace the controllers who will retire in coming years. The federal government hired more than 11,000 air-traffic controllers to fill in for controllers who walked out on their jobs following a labor dispute in 1981, and many of those replacement workers are reaching retirement age now.

Baker said the agency has underestimated retirement numbers in the past. Officials predicted 467 controllers would retire in 2006, but 734 controllers actually retired, he said.

"It's clear the margin of safety is being diminished," Baker said. "Ten-hour days are not uncommon, and six-day work weeks are not uncommon. It takes 18 months on average to go from being a trainee to being a certified controller. When these controllers start retiring, we're going to be in a world of hurt."

Ian Gregor, a California-based spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said he concurred with Berkley on the importance of safe staffing inside control towers.

"We agree it's critically important to maintain air-traffic controller staffing," Gregor said. "We have a comprehensive staffing plan in place to ensure continued appropriate staffing levels at our facilities in Las Vegas and across the country."

But Gregor disputed Baker's contention that McCarran is or will soon be understaffed.

Gregor said the number of controllers that union officials say the Las Vegas TRACON should have was based on a labor contract negotiated in 1998 rather than the operational needs of the country's airports. The contract and its staffing provisions expired in 2003, so the idea that the TRACON at McCarran must have 56 controllers is no longer "valid," Gregor said.

"That was a negotiated staffing level that robbed the FAA of the flexibility to divert resources away from where they weren't needed to areas where they were needed," he said.

"There was never any scientific validation that (56) was the proper number or required number of controllers at the facility," he added.

The Las Vegas TRACON now has 51 controllers, including 14 trainees, Gregor said. He added that the agency's staffing numbers have always included trainees, some of whom are qualified to operate some air-traffic control equipment.

And there's no historical link between staffing and operational errors, Gregor said. Operational errors and staffing levels at airports often vary from year to year, and the agency's data show no correlation between the two factors. The record actually shows most operating errors occur during traffic lulls rather than during busier times, Gregor said.

Nor do controllers at McCarran work overtime as a matter of course, Gregor said.

Gregor acknowledged the administration has underestimated retirement levels in past years, but he said the agency has been effective at making up for the steeper losses. In 2006, for example, the administration boosted new control-center hires from a planned 935 controllers to 1,116 controllers when retirement rates were higher than officials expected.

The administration also has a nationwide pool of 3,000 prospective controllers who have been interviewed and are waiting to be hired, including former military air-traffic controllers. The agency expects to lose 10,200 controllers around the country by 2015, and managers plan to hire 11,800 new controllers to cover the shortfall, Gregor said.

The administration is aiming to have 52 controllers inside the Las Vegas TRACON by the end of 2007, Gregor added.

McCarran representatives don't determine FAA staffing levels, but they said they expect federal officials to take measures that would protect the country's air passengers.

"McCarran International Airport believes in maintaining the integrity of our nation's air transportation system," McCarran spokesman Chris Jones said. "We have full confidence that the policy decisions made by Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration will benefit the traveling public."

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