Air traffic controllers rack up OT; 'Staffing crisis': Workers say safety is at issue.

June 25, 2007

Overtime payments for air traffic controllers have more than doubled at the TRACON facility in Peachtree City, a fact that controllers argue bolsters their complaints of chronic understaffing.

The FAA has verified that controllers at TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) were paid $865,000 in overtime from October 2006 to March 2007. In the same period the year before, controllers' overtime payments were $329,565.

"It's an 'I told you so' kind of situation," said Jim Allerdice, president of the local branch of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "We knew in 2003 that we were going to have a staffing crisis and no one took action.

"We haven't had any increase in operational errors due to staffing. But this increases the potential for them because people are getting tired. If you're not 100 percent in this job, you reach a point where safety can be compromised."

Controllers have accused their bosses at the Federal Aviation Administration --- the two groups have a longstanding feud --- of failing to react to a wave of retirements that have depleted the ranks of veteran controllers and forced those remaining to work six-day weeks frequently. That schedule leads to fatigue and creates a situation that could undermine air safety in one of the nation's busiest air corridors, Allerdice contends.

TRACON takes over for the tower at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport once planes become airborne from the world's busiest airport.

FAA officials deny controllers' claims and say replacement controllers are being hired at the appropriate levels. FAA officials, including administrator Marion Blakey, say the skies around Atlanta are "absolutely" safe.

"We will take whatever measures are necessary to keep it safe," Blakey said during a recent visit to Atlanta.

The FAA and the controllers' union disagree about actual staffing levels at TRACON.

The FAA contends there are 101 controllers, including 74 who are fully certified, nine still in training but approved for certain tasks, and 18 still in training for the positions, which earn about $135,000 on average.

Spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said the agency will hire four or five more staffers for TRACON by year's end.

"We have a very aggressive hiring and training program that will more than offset any attrition due to retirements," Bergen said. The agency anticipates eight retirements at TRACON this year, she said.

Allerdice, however, said there are 72 fully certified controllers. He said there are 22 still in training, with only five of those approved to perform limited tasks. He placed total staffing at TRACON at 94 and said five others are on extended medical leave.

"Overtime is soaring because staffing is so short," he said. "The numbers speak for themselves."

Allerdice estimated "70 to 80 percent" of TRACON controllers are working 6-day weeks. That increases fatigue, he said, and increases the likelihood of a mistake in a business where mistakes can have catastrophic consequences.

The National Transportation Safety Board recently advised controllers and the FAA to work together to find ways to identify and reduce fatigue.

Controllers work highly stressful jobs and, at any one time, have the lives of thousands of airline passengers in their hands.

Many veteran controllers across the country are now reaching retirement age. Most were hired in the 1980s after President Ronald Reagan fired thousands of striking controllers who refused a directive to return to work.

Controllers say it could take years to replace retiring veterans with new hires and get those new controllers up to speed.

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