With its internal navigational system sputtering, the Federal Aviation Administration is on a misguided mission.
The latest evidence comes with the federal agency's decision to terminate labor talks with its air traffic controllers and to institute its own work and pay guidelines. The House did not muster enough votes to send the FAA back to the bargaining table, so the new work rules were imposed this past week.
In doing this, the FAA has mistakenly targeted air traffic controllers as the source of the agency's problems, making a bad situation worse.
"The FAA is a mismanaged mess," said Mike Boyd, a Colorado-based airline consultant with The Boyd Group. "There's no other way of putting it. It is trying to paint air traffic controllers as greedy bureaucrats, but that's not true. The skies are not as safe as they should be, but that's not the fault of the controllers."
Boyd characterizes the FAA as ineffective and unable to remedy internal management woes. He says exacerbating poor labor relations is not the way to fix the agency.
"It's unfortunate," said Tony Vella, president of the Southern California chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "Everything they are doing is based on politics, not facts."
The last major FAA dispute with air traffic controllers was 25 years ago when President Ronald Reagan fired all 11,000 controllers, forcing a massive restaffing and rebuilding project that took years.
This time, the FAA and the controllers union tried for nine months to forge a new contract. In April, the FAA declared an impasse and threw the issue into Congress, where lawmakers had 60 days to either resolve the dispute or to let the FAA draw up the terms of a new contract.
This month, that 60-day period elapsed. A last-ditch effort in the House to force the FAA back to the bargaining table failed on a 271-148 vote.
Under the new pay schedule, newly hired air traffic controllers will make $93,000 after five years of experience, compared with the $127,000 now earned by controllers with five years' experience.
FAA spokesman Geoff Basye said that those salaries are lower, but points out that the agency has no difficulty recruiting new controllers and that all 14,575 air traffic controller positions nationwide are now fully staffed.
Vella vigorously denies that. The Southern California TRACON operation in San Diego, which supervises air traffic throughout the region and is the busiest such facility in the nation, has 261 authorized positions. Only 203 of those positions are filled, with 10 more air traffic controllers in training, Vella said.
From January through May 31, Southern California TRACON reported 12 close calls between aircraft, up from five reports in the comparable period a year ago, Vella says.
"There is no doubt in my mind that there is a correlation between the shrinking number of air traffic controllers and the number of incidents reported," he said. "Our current staffing is not enough to do our job well."
On a typical day, 6,200 to 6,400 planes require TRACON assistance before they are turned over to individual airports for final approaches and takeoffs.
"We haven't been fully staffed in three years, and that is starting to wear on the controllers," Vella said. "We want to assure air safety, and if these numbers keep slipping, we might not be able to do that."
For example, Thursday's staffing at the San Diego airport terminal called for 11 air controllers on both day and night shifts, yet eight were available for each shift, Vella said.
Vella said morale among controllers has been skidding for some time. As work pressures mount, more are talking about retirement. Fifty controllers at the Southern California facility are eligible to retire by September 2007.
"Morale is so bad that every controller I have talked to says they plan to retire the day they are eligible," he said. "That is going to create a major problem."
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