Apr. 22--TAMPA — Air traffic controller mistakes that allow planes to fly too close together are occurring at a faster rate in Tampa and at airports nationwide than a year ago, Federal Aviation Administration data released Monday show.
FAA controllers reported six "operational errors" at Tampa International Airport between Oct. 1 and Sunday, compared with three for the same period a year ago, the FAA data showed.
Nationwide, controllers at airport terminals and terminal radar approach control centers, which oversee aircraft approaches and departures out to about 60 miles from airports, reported 423 operational errors for the first 6 months of the current fiscal year, compared with 713 for the entire fiscal year from Oct. 1, 2006, to Sept. 30.
The FAA mandates its controllers and control tower supervisors file an operational error report when they allow pilots to fly their planes closer to each other than minimum standards, which vary depending upon the distance and altitude flights are from an airport.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing controllers, attributed the increase in operational errors to more inexperienced controllers replacing veteran controllers who are retiring.
"Flying at Tampa International Airport remains safe," said Mark Kerr, an air traffic controller at the airport and the union's facility representative. "But it was safer to fly in the United States and at Tampa three years ago."
Veteran controllers at Tampa International earn on average a little more than $100,000 annually. However, they are spurred to leave the FAA when they reach retirement age at 50 because of their dissatisfaction with recent changes in pay and work rules, Kerr said Monday.
Once trainees who start in the low $30,000 range or more reach certification after about four years, they are likely to earn in the high $60,000s at Tampa, he said. Congress currently is debating controller pay and other issues that the controllers' union has challenged, which could return the dispute over pay to arbitration this year.
Three of the six incidents at Tampa International involved "Certified Professional Controllers in Training," controllers certified at other airports who transferred to Tampa to fill open positions, the FAA reported. Two of the errors occurred during "one event" when aircraft on final approach did not maintain the standard separation, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said in an e-mail from the FAA's Atlanta office.
Kerr said an operational error reported at Tampa International on March 6 involved a controller who was working a sector monitoring aircraft flying east of the airport for only the second time, at a time when the easternmost of the two main north-south runways was closed.
That meant general aviation aircraft were being guided to land from east to west on the airport's smallest runway, which is perpendicular to the two main, parallel runways.
"The controller turned away to check something and two general aviation aircraft lost the required 3-mile separation," Kerr said.
Another operational error, for which Kerr did not have a date, occurred with an inexperienced controller when a commercial airline pilot slowed more quickly than expected before a landing approach. That caused a trailing airliner to be diverted.
The Tampa tower has 45 "Certified Professional Controllers," including two who plan to retire in May, on a staff that ranges from 57 to 67, Bergen said. An additional 20 developmental controllers are in training at Tampa, with three more in training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. Tampa's 10 air traffic control supervisors are available to work traffic, Bergen said.
Twenty-six of Tampa International's controllers are now eligible to retire, Bergen said.
"Most controllers do not retire immediately when they are eligible but remain working for several years past eligibility," Bergen said.
The FAA estimates that 7,540 controllers could retire by 2011. That's more than half the current work force.
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An incident last summer prompted a ban on solo work shifts in control towers at RDU and similar airports.
The National Air Traffic Control Association launched the "Fly Us Safe" public campaign to point out what it says are safety shortfalls in Tampa and at other airports.