'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.