A staff shortage has forced a regional air traffic control facility in El Toro to operate with 19 instead of the normal 36 fully qualified controllers, with most working six-day weeks, officials said Thursday.
Overtime hours logged at the El Toro facility have increased tenfold--from 200 hours during the three months ended Dec. 31, 1985, to an estimated 2,100 hours for the quarter ended Sept. 1--the highest in the four-state Western Pacific region, Federal Aviation Administration officials said. The region covers facilities in California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and the Pacific Ocean.
"I would have to say that the controllers here take it as a definite hardship, and it's something I'm trying to get out of as fast as possible," said Marion Davis, manager of the FAA's Coast TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) Facility, located at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
However, Davis stressed that the staff shortage--caused mainly by recent resignations--does not pose an immediate threat to air safety.
"It's an undesirable situation from an employee's point of view, to be sure," Davis said. "But I don't think working the overtime causes a safety problem. It's more of a personal inconvenience."
Coast TRACON controllers, who watch a 3,000-square-mile area, utilize computer-enhanced radar images to guide pilots through the Los Angeles-Orange County basin until airport tower controllers take over during final approach.
The issue of controllers' workloads surfaced Wednesday when National Transportation Safety Board investigators said the Los Angeles International Airport controller who guided Aeromexico Flight 498 before Sunday's crash over Cerritos was doing two jobs simultaneously. While remaining responsible for monitoring radar echoes on his own radar screen, the controller was also "handing off" or formally transferring aircraft from one controller's sector to another.
However, such double duty is not unusual during periods of light air traffic, officials said.
Earlier this week, FAA officials had said that Orange County facilities were fully staffed with controllers and there was no overtime problem. However, they said Thursday that they were referring only to John Wayne Airport, not Coast TRACON.
Davis said Coast TRACON is authorized to have 36 "full performance level" controllers, who are fully trained and experienced to perform all air controller tasks. But, Davis said, Coast TRACON currently has only 19 so-called "FPLs," plus six partially qualified controllers, three of whom are on loan from other FAA facilities.
Davis said the staff shortage is due mostly to five abrupt resignations, including those of two controllers who took jobs as airline pilots. He said it takes up to 14 months to train a new controller, and he has eight trainees who should be ready within nine to 10 months.
"That should take care of a lot of our problem," Davis said.
Fred Mauck, a Coast TRACON supervisor, said Thursday that he and his co-workers routinely delay aircraft from entering the coastal area in order to keep planes separated from one another. This technique is known as "flow control," Mauck said.
"We've been backing up planes all the way to the East Coast so that we can get a grip on things," Mauck said.
Pilots sometimes are told to slow down en route to Southern California, or even to delay their departures from points east, so that they will arrive over the basin at longer intervals, Mauck said.
From All Directions
"Orange and Los Angeles counties basically get air traffic from all directions, 360 degrees around the compass, so there's a big (traffic) problem," Mauck said.
"I would say that the controllers here feel they are having to work overtime against their will," Mauck added.
Coast TRACON is located in a two-story stucco building at the El Toro base, near several large hangars and rows of jet fighters.
In a windowless room, Coast TRACON controllers Thursday were at work, peering at green radar screens filled with blips of light designating air traffic. One side of the room is for tracking military aircraft, the other side for civilian aircraft.
Several radar blips, unaccompanied by altitude information, seemed to converge, so the controllers issued advisories to the pilots, such as, "Traffic at eight o'clock, altitude unknown."
"There's so much traffic you can't be nervous about it because (traffic advisories) are a common occurrence," said Stanley Gurulet, 42, who has been a controller since 1963. Gurulet was transferred from San Diego TRACON two weeks ago to help out.