Union, FAA at Odds over KCI Safety Incident

Jul. 24 — An understaffed air traffic control operation at Kansas City International Airport contributed to a recent safety incident involving two small aircraft, according to the union representing the controllers.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees air traffic control and is investigating the incident, says the event was not as severe as the union is portraying it.

On May 23, two Piper Cherokee planes, one of which had taken off from KCI and the other from Johnson County Executive Airport, came within 2.12 miles of each other. They should have been at least three miles apart, according to federal minimum separation standards, said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association said Wednesday that the KCI control tower has 25 fully qualified controllers when it should have at least 36.

The control tower has nine additional trainees, but the union said only a few of them are qualified to work independently.

"You can't keep working tired people for a long period of time with only short breaks to tide them over and not expect mistakes to happen," said local air traffic controllers' union representative Kevin Peterson.

Alex Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said strong east winds that day required controllers to use a different runway that they were not as proficient with.

Cory said that understaffing was not a factor.

Two controllers were in the building that day but on break, and they could have been called back to work if needed, she said.

Cory said the claim that controllers were not proficient enough to handle traffic on a different runway was odd because familiarity with all the airport's runways is required as part of their certification.

Cory said the FAA counts the trainees as part of the KCI control tower staff. At least eight more are expected to be hired soon, she said.