Air traffic controllers say new work rules, which started Sunday,will compromise safety in the skies.
Controllers at major international airports -- including Fort Lauderdale and Miami -- are concerned in particular that the Federal Aviation Administration's cost-cutting will make it even harder to keep up with burgeoning traffic.
Under the new rules, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association:
--Controllers can no longer call in sick when they are simply tired.
--They cannot call in sick with a cold.
--Breaks after two hours are no longer guaranteed.
The new rules have been in the works since contract negotiations between the FAA and the controllers' union broke down in April. But a plane crash that killed 49 people at Lexington Blue Grass Airport early Sunday morning brings them into sharp focus.
The crash's sole survivor is First Officer James Polehinke, of Margate, who was in serious condition Friday night at the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital.
The lone controller in the Kentucky tower had turned his back to the airfield before the pilots took off on the wrong runway. He had worked from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, then returned to work at 11:30 p.m. the same day to begin another eight-hour shift. Investigators said he had only two hours of sleep. The FAA has since added a second controller.
Things aren't so different at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, said Howie Rifas, president of the local NATCA.
"We work a one-man mid just like Lexington, always have," said Rifas, an air traffic controller for 18 years.
That means one person staffs the tower between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., when noise rules keep flights to a minimum.
Rifas said he believes 30 controllers are needed to staff the tower; the FAA has recommended 26. The tower currently has 20 controllers and two trainees.
Typically, a Fort Lauderdale controller can expect to work a night shift every other week, he said.
"We are definitely short staffed, no question," Rifas said. "Every facility in the country is short staffed."
FAA chief Marion Blakey disagrees.
"Overall, across the country, we do not have a shortage of air-traffic controllers," Blakey said at a news conference Thursday in Louisville.
Blakey has been under pressure from Congress to cut costs but to hire more controllers. On Aug. 24, she reported to Congress that the FAA will hire 930 new controllers by October.
South Florida air traffic controllers said their numbers have been dwindling since 2003, putting undue pressure on the workforce and compromising safety in the skies.
Jim Marinitti, president of the local air traffic controllers union at Miami International Airport, said staff cutbacks and the new work rules could endanger the traveling public.
He said, for instance, that the tower at MIA has 70 certified air traffic controllers who monitor airlines on the ground and in the sky up to 16,000 feet. That total is down from 88 controllers in 2003.
He said the local union's agreement with FAA called for 100 total positions.
Miami Center, which monitors aircraft above 16,000 feet, has 204 certified controllers -- down from 235 in 2003, said Steve Wallace, president of the air traffic controllers local.
Wallace said that while the FAA has approved the hiring of dozens of new trainees, they are not being certified quickly enough to replace controllers who are retiring or quitting.
Nationally, there are 1,081 fewer controllers now than three years ago. Their numbers dropped from 15,386 in September 2003 to 14,305 in August 2006, according to the FAA.
Nearly half the current controllers are expected to retire in the next decade.
"We're not keeping pace with demand," Wallace said, noting that air traffic in South Florida has exploded since 2001 with the expansion of domestic travel at Fort Lauderdale and of international at MIA.
Transferring radar controllers from Palm Beach International Airport to Miami could make South Florida skies a "dangerous place to be," four area congressmen said.
The tower, twice as high as the existing 120-foot tower, is scheduled to be designed and constructed on the north side of the airport between 2007 and 2009, and go into operation in 2011.
At the fast-growing Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, 15 percent more flights take off and land than five years ago.
Under a new FAA policy, imposed as part of a union contract on Sept. 3, controllers nationwide are not allowed to leave their workplaces during an eight-hour shift.