Controller Retirements Could Hinder Travel

Oct. 10--With air traffic controllers retiring at alarming rates and few trained personnel to replace them, officials with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association are warning something must be done or passenger safety may be compromised.

And with many more controllers expected to retire in the upcoming months, the lack of trained personnel will leave a gap too large to fill, predicted Tony Vella, local president for National Air Traffic Controllers Association for Southern California and an air traffic controller for Los Angeles International Airport.

"The (Federal Aviation Administration) has not projected far enough in advance to hire the employees necessary," Vella said. "Now there really is only a couple of different ways this problem can be handled. They will either have to make controllers work a mandatory six days straight, or the (FAA) will have to slow down the amount of traffic to match the number of air traffic controllers."

Ontario International Airport, with more than 220 flights a day, has the third-most-understaffed airspace in Southern California, Vella said.

The FAA has approved 268 air traffic controller spots operating from the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Center near San Diego. The center, known as TRACON, has filled just 217 of those slots.

At the Ontario sector for air traffic control at TRACON, only 33 air traffic controllers are working. The FAA authorized 38. Vella said the number will go down to 31 by the end of the year.

Ontario airport officials said they have confidence in the air traffic controllers, but hope to get more trained employees in the near future.

"We don't have as much traffic as the bigger airports in our region and we hope that (the situation) would not pose any problems for us," said Maria Tesoro-Fermin, spokeswoman for ONT.

The Southern California TRACON center provides radar air traffic control services to all arriving and departing aircraft for Los Angeles, San Diego, Burbank, Ontario, Long Beach and John Wayne airports.

The airspace covers an area between Burbank and San Bernardino to the north and the United States/Mexican border to the south. A quarter of the nation's air traffic is watched by air traffic controllers operating at TRACON at any given time, Vella said.

But FAA officials said the recent announcements made by representatives of the National Air Traffic Controllers union are just scare tactics and have come on the heels of continuing union negotiations over salary and benefits.

There hasn't been a serious airline incident in the United States since the American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed over Queens, New York, in November 2001, said FAA spokesman Greg Martin.

"Contract negotiations started in mid-July," Martin said. Union members are asking for a 5.6-percent pay raise annually with a 60-percent increase in sick leave and 7-hour workday that includes a paid meal break, Martin added.

"We have more than enough staffing at (Southern California) TRACON. We've had a decline in operational errors. Overall, the safety level has improved," he said.

But, according to Vella, there were 19 substantial operational errors in 2005, where airplanes came within very close range of each other. In 2004, there were only eight substantial operational errors, he added.

Further, a promise by the FAA in March to transfer 60 approved air traffic controllers to the TRACON center has been ignored, Vella added. FAA officials said Thursday that the 60 air traffic controllers would arrive to the TRACON center in San Diego before the end of the year.

"During this transition period it took longer to do the transfers," Martin said. "Those 60 are on their way."

When the new air traffic controllers arrive, some of them will be filling in needed positions for ONT airspace, Martin said.

Safety is a main priority and with airline traffic increasing every year at ONT, adding more controllers is an important step, Tesoro-Fermin said.

"At this time that doesn't pose an issue for us," Tesoro-Fermin said. "But we do look forward to getting more air traffic controllers before the end of the year."


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