Nov. 3--Air-traffic controllers say the tower at Harrisburg International Airport is understaffed, and they worry that it will be closed during the overnight shift despite its proximity to two nuclear power plants.
"We're routinely short-handed," said Joseph Carbone, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at HIA. "We've ended up combining positions because of this."
The airport has 17 controllers and seven controllers in training, but it is supposed to have a total of 30, Carbone said.
He estimates that HIA has lost about a dozen senior controllers over the last few years to retirement.
Federal Aviation Administration officials dispute that there's a staffing shortage at HIA.
"We're short a couple of controllers, but principally because we haven't gotten everybody through the training program," said John Gilmore, the FAA manager at HIA.
The seven controllers in training can't work all the positions yet, he noted.
Gilmore said HIA is supposed to have 26 controllers, but is one short because of a recent resignation. That position is about to be advertised, he added.
FAA spokesman Greg Martin said the union is "posturing" during contract negotiations, with "no indication that Harrisburg is understaffed."
The FAA expects a wave of retirements in the coming years -- 7,500 between 2007 and 2015 -- so the agency plans to hire 12,500 new controllers over the next decade, he said.
Doug Church, spokesman for the union's national office in Washington, D.C., accused the FAA of being "late to the party.
"It's one thing to hire them, but it's going to take a few years before they'r e ready to swim alone ," he said. "Right now, they'r e not hiring them fast enou gh" to keep up with retirements.
It can take up to five years of on-the-job training for new hires to become certified professional controllers, Church noted.
Another issue for the controllers is a directive the FAA recently issued to smaller airports, including HIA, where only one controller is on duty overnight.
The directive told them to schedule two controllers on the midnight shift, but did not set a deadline for them to do that, FAA spokeswoman Arlene Murray said.
But Carbone said he understood there was a target date of Oct. 17 to implement the directive, and it hasn't happened yet at HIA.
"That's a definite safety issue," Carbone said. "God forbid somebody would get sick ... and not be able to respond to the airplanes."
Carbone and Church suspect the directive hasn't been implemented at HIA because of plans to close the tower overnight.
The union considers it "a very ominous thing that they haven't complied with the FAA's own mandate," Church said.
Last winter, the FAA compiled a list of 42 low-traffic airports, including HIA, where it is considering closing the control towers between midnight and 5 a.m. to save money.
During that shift, an average of 10 flights an hour are in the HIA tower's radar coverage area, according to Murray.
That coverage area includes Reading to just east of Johnstown and from Selinsgrove south to York. During the day, Reading Airport has its own radar approach control.
No decision about tower closures has been made, Martin said Wednesday.
But Gilmore said, "If they want us to close [for that shift] there's no point in staffing two [controllers]. We haven't been taken off the list. We'd like to know for sure if we're going to close on the midnight shift."
However, he added, "we're not going to wait indefinitely. We're probably going to give it another few weeks" before making the scheduling change.
If the HIA tower is shut down at night, a New York facility would take over radar approach control in this area, but that facility's radar can't see below 4,000 feet, Carbone said.
"With Three Mile Island and Peach Bottom [nuclear power plants] here, they wouldn't see any suspect aircraft approaching these facilities," he said.
The tower at HIA has a direct phone line to TMI's security office. "If we notice any suspect aircraft we are to call them to advise them. So we do act as a first line of defense to them," Carbone said.
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A proposal to shut down the airport control tower here during overnight hours could delay medical flights for critically ill patients from the region, aviation officials say.
Airport where plane crashed had put together a plan to help it comply with federal guidelines on staffing in air control towers but never enacted it.