The Federal Aviation Administration has admitted that the control tower at Los Angeles International Airport is "severely understaffed," but continues to ignore dwindling staffing numbers at its busy Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center in Fremont, Calif., while making sure its own supervisor ranks are completely full.
Both issues raise serious safety concerns at a time when the National Transportation Safety Board has identified runway incursions -- especially at LAX -- as its top concern. Despite Oakland Center's staffing shortage, the FAA is attempting to implement a new oceanic traffic tracking system and keep up with rising traffic counts.
The FAA's admission of a staffing problem at LAX came in a letter written by Western Pacific Regional Counsel Monroe P. Balton, dated Sept. 15, 2005, who denied a lawyer's request to take depositions of two controllers simultaneously in a private legal matter. "The Airport Traffic Control Tower at Los Angeles is severely understaffed," Balton wrote. "It would unduly disrupt the operation of the tower," if the controllers were absent. Currently, LAX is four controllers short of the 47 positions the FAA has authorized it to employ. Two more controllers are scheduled to leave by March. FAA managers have also allowed shifts to run short of controllers instead of scheduling overtime when needed. Under this new policy, the facility has gone from zero operational errors in two and a half years to six in the past 18 months. Runway incursions are spiking as well.
In Oakland, the FAA says the center is authorized to have 268 controllers but currently employs just 150. The FAA has also authorized the facility to have 54 managers and supervisors. Currently, the center employs ... 54.
"The FAA is practicing a 'no manager position left behind' policy at the expense of controller staffing and passenger safety," said John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "Basically, you have more managers watching fewer controllers juggling more and more airplanes. No matter how the FAA will spin this, it is definitely not a formula for safety in the skies above Northern California."
To make matters worse in Oakland, by February 2006, the center will lose five controllers to transfers or retirement -- this in addition to the 30 departures that have occurred in the last three months. Although the facility has 101 trainees, they are taking longer than the FAA's stated average of three years to become fully certified. In fact, 25 have already exceeded three years and have at least one more to go. Meanwhile, traffic has increased over 10 percent in the past three years.
"The FAA is playing a dangerous game of staffing limbo, effectively saying, 'how low can we go,'" Oakland Center NATCA facility representative Jeff Tilley said. "But the lower the bar goes, the lower the margin of safety falls. Working more airplanes with almost one-third less controllers makes for a very stressful workplace. Factor in forced overtime, and controllers are getting burned out. It's like carrying two dozen eggs in a box designed for one dozen. It's getting harder and harder to keep them from breaking, but at some point, the box will not be able to handle any more eggs without dropping some. Someone needs to shut off the limbo music, admit there's a staffing problem and fix it before the box breaks as well."
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