FAA investigates Memphis controller errors

Aug. 23, 2007
Controllers blame understaffing

Aug. 22--The government is investigating a series of errors made by air traffic controllers in Memphis that caused planes on six occasions in one week to come too close together, including jets flown by Southwest and American airlines.

Air traffic controllers blame the mistakes -- including confused communication due to radio static and plain miscommunication -- to being chronically short-staffed.

In the most serious of the close calls, a MD-80 flown by American Airlines Aug. 14 came within 2.5 miles of a commuter jet flying 600 feet above it over Memphis.

The incident was the second error that day. The first was logged in the morning when an experienced controller training a new controller allowed a King Air and ExecJet to come within 3.6 miles of each other as they prepared to land at Nashville International Airport.

They were "not what we would call the highest-severity category errors. On an A, B, C scale, they were C-level errors," said Laura Brown, Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman.

The errors, including one Aug. 13 and Aug. 16 and two Aug. 17, were made by controllers at the Memphis Air Route Traffic Control center, 3229 Democrat Road. Two of them were trainees whose work was being monitored by senior controllers.

"We have never had this many mistakes at one time in Memphis," said Ron Carpenter, head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association representing 249 controllers at the center.

"What caused a lot of this, in my opinion, is that we are working so short right now," he said.

"We believe we are 101 controllers short of the journeyman controllers we were allotted."

The ramification, he said, means that a shift traditionally staffed by 13 to 14 journeyman controllers now has eight to nine.

Brown discounts the allegations, saying that the union is referring to numbers from a previous contract.

"The 354 number goes back to the 1998-2003 contract, which was extended to 2005," she said.

The Memphis facility currently has 63 trainees and is scheduled to get 15 more in October. While they are not fully certified controllers, they are qualified to work the positions they have been trained on, Brown said.

"They become part of staffing even though they are not fully certified. It does not mean they are not functional in some respect."

Under the new FAA staffing plan for the next decade, rolled out last year, the range of controllers allotted the Memphis center is 244-298, Brown said.

She also said that controllers monitor several vectors during slow periods when traffic is down.

The new FAA staffing ratios, established after negotiating with controllers, reflect the actual workload in each center, she said, helping the FAA more accurately staff facilities around the nation.

The FAA, facing massive retirements among workers hired after the air traffic control strike in 1981, says it hired 1,100 controllers last year and is on target to hire 1,400 this year.

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