Mar. 26 -- At the fast-growing Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, 15 percent more flights take off and land than five years ago.
But the number of air traffic controllers directing planes hasn't risen along with the flights, meaning that controllers are working longer hours and taking shorter breaks. Those job conditions have controllers such as Victor Hernandez worried that safety is being compromised.
"The extra time, it starts to add up, day after day," said Hernandez, speaking on behalf of NATCA, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "When you are dealing with lives, it's a different kind of stress. If something happens, you can't just turn back the clock."
There have been no accidents at the airport, and the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that runs the nation's towers, says Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood is well protected.
"Yes, they are working harder than before," said Bill Kribble, the FAA's air traffic manager for South Florida. But "we have sufficient numbers of people to safely run operations."
NATCA, which is negotiating a new contract with the FAA, has criticized the FAA for staffing shortages nationwide, claiming that the agency hasn't moved fast enough to fill vacancies.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood's tower, whose controllers each handle, on average, 11,820 flights a year, is by no means among the country's busiest towers. On the FAA's scale of towers, with 12 being the busiest, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood is a 9 -- it was recently upgraded from an 8. At Dallas-Fort Worth, a controller will handle, on average, 14,800 flights a year, and at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, the workload is higher, at 20,450 flights.
FLIGHTS PER PERSON
Still, the Broward County airport's controllers are handling more flights per person than peers at airports such as Washington Reagan, Chicago Midway, San Diego and New York's LaGuardia. What is particularly stressful, they said, are the so-called "squeeze plays" -- allowing a plane to take off while another jet is on final approach to the runway. That's common at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, where almost all commercial traffic uses one runway.
The Fort LauderdaleHollywood tower has 24 controllers and four supervisors, although the union says that only 21 controllers are currently working. The FAA said it couldn't produce staff records for previous years because it switched computer systems. But the union says that the tower had 26 controllers and two supervisors in 2002, and that staffing hasn't changed since at least 2000.
In that time, daily takeoffs and landings at the airport have risen 15 percent, to 110.
One reason the Fort Lauderdale airport doesn't need more controllers, the FAA says, is its seasonality: Traffic is heavy in winter, less busy in the summer and fall.
"You can use more people in the winter months, but then traffic tapers off," Kribble said. "We augment that with overtime. We keep it staffed and running safe."
The controllers themselves say 30 is the right number of people.
Squeeze plays common to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood led to at least one recent close call. In November, a pilot of a Comair CRJ-200 was ordered to "taxi into position and hold" on Runway 9L. At the same time, controllers cleared a US Airways Boeing 737 to land.
That is common practice at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood.
The problem: The Comair jet wasn't told to take off. As the US Airways pilot got closer to the runway, he noticed the Comair in the path. The pilot asked the tower again if it was OK to land. The tower said yes.
Seconds later, the tower recognized the looming disaster and ordered the US Airways 737 to "go around," which means to abort a planned landing. The National Transportation Safety Board thinks the planes could have been as close as 100 feet from each other.
Howie Rifas, the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood NATCA president, is defensive about the near-mishap. He said that the controller caught the problem in time, and that go-arounds are common at all airports.
'TWO JOBS AT ONCE'
Still, he said, short staffing might have contributed to the incident.
"We might have been doing two jobs at once," Rifas said. "That's one thing that can happen when we are short-staffed."
Rifas also said that some recent moves to reduce delays have actually increased the need for more controllers, such as sending smaller jets to other runways, which then requires additional staff members to direct traffic on the south side of the airport.
An FAA study last spring suggested that increasing staffing at the airport could reduce delays.
The FAA has been scrambling to hire new controllers, but only to replace people leaving.
Nearly 75 percent of the nation's controllers are eligible for retirement in the next 10 years, reports the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general. And, while the inspector general's report did not address whether specific towers were shorthanded, the office did say that the FAA didn't have a good system in place for knowing where staff members need to be placed.
"The main problem is they keep creating new positions, but we don't have any new people," Rifas said. "We have shorter breaks, and our position time is longer."
Still, despite the short staffing, the winter season of 2005-06 has been less stressful than previous years, Rifas said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection now has longer operating hours at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, which means that private planes arriving from the Caribbean at dusk don't have to stop at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood to clear Customs and then take off again and fly a few miles to their final destination.
The tower at Miami International Airport, which also handles high-altitude flights throughout the region, is short-staffed as well, NATCA claims.
But MIA has four runways available to commercial jets, and controllers there have the benefit of sometimes using three runways at once -- different ones for arrivals and departures -- which avoids squeeze plays. Congestion at MIA is almost nonexistent.
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