Springfield air-traffic controllers contend they're overworked because of understaffing and mismanagement, an assertion denied by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has been locked in a labor dispute with the controllers' union for more than a year.
The situation is so dire, the union says, that a controller who was guiding a private plane that crashed southwest of Springfield Dec. 20, killing all three aboard, has put himself on leave because of emotional problems.
Besides operating radar equipment, the man was the designated controller in charge, responsible for supervising colleagues because of understaffing and was not relieved of duty to assist with the preliminary investigation and allow him time to cope with stress associated with the crash, the union says.
"The stressful working conditions the night of the crash were the direct result of the FAA's mismanagement of the facility," the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said in a written statement Jan. 15. "On indefinite leave, the disqualified controller credits his emotional breakdown to the unsafe staffing levels combined with the stress of too many trainees and the overwhelming pressure to train them."
A National Transportation Safety Administration official who is investigating last month's crash said he hadn't heard complaints of unsafe staffing.
"I can't give you any kind of conclusion or analysis on that," said Andrew Todd Fox, NTSB investigator. "I'll just have to say we'll take that into consideration."
In interviews, union officials stopped short of saying the airport isn't safe.
"Are they working at unsafe staffing levels?" said Alexandra Caldwell, a union spokeswoman. "Yes. But they're overcoming it by working overtime and combining positions, which is what led this controller to quit. I think we should call him a product of a quickly deteriorating system."
The FAA acknowledges that there are not as many controllers working in Springfield as the agency would like, but notes that trainees will soon be fully qualified.
The FAA has authorized 14 controller positions for Springfield. Seven fully qualified controllers are on duty along with five trainees. Two additional controllers, including the one who handled the Dec. 20 plane that crashed, are out for medical reasons, according to the union and the FAA.
Elizabeth Cory, an FAA spokeswoman, said one of the five trainees should be fully qualified by the end of March. She said the tower had normal and adequate staffing when the single-engine plane crashed while approaching the runway while flying on instruments.
"The tower is not mismanaged," Cory said. "It currently has staffing challenges in that we have two (controllers) out on medical issues, and we are in the process of building up our remaining staff."
But training is difficult with a shortage of supervisors, union officials say. Cory said declining traffic at Springfield also is making it tough for trainees to get sufficient practice.
In 2000, Springfield handled 72,560 takeoffs and landings, according to FAA records. Last year, the airport saw 42,851 landings and takeoffs. Since 2000, controller staffing has been reduced from 22 to 14 positions.
Jeff Brennan, union representative in Springfield, said he and other controllers are routinely working six days a week. Besides a lack of staff, controllers are suffering from low starting pay, he said. The FAA reduced starting pay by 30 percent in 2006, when contract negotiations reached a stalemate.
"It's a pretty serious disincentive," Brennan said. "They're currently having problems filling classes. I've got two trainees at the facility right now, one of which is working a part-time job to make ends meet."
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