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Union, FAA collide on air safety

Some say contract and controller staffing disputes pose dangers. The agency calls this a safe period in aviation.

September 04, 2007|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The next time you board an airliner and buckle your seat belt, you will be about to fly through a bitter labor dispute between some of the people most responsible for your safety in the skies.

The nation's air traffic controllers and the Federal Aviation Administration, which employs them, cannot agree whether enough qualified people are guiding air traffic or how safe the air space is today.

With airline travel rebounding almost to the volume before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, delays on U.S. flights have reached a record high. Nearly one-third of domestic flights on major carriers were late in June. At the same time, the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. have been unable to agree on a contract. A year ago, the FAA declared an impasse and imposed a contract. Since then, the retirement of experienced controllers has soared beyond the agency's forecasts.

"In several places, it has created a safety problem where controllers are working 10-hour days, six-day weeks and working combined positions because they don't have enough fully trained bodies," union President Patrick Forrey said.

FAA figures show the number of fully certified controllers dropped to 11,467 in May -- the lowest in a decade, the union says. Beside them in control centers are 3,300 so-called developmental controllers who are being trained on the job.

"They are pushing the envelope and somebody is going to snap," Forrey warned. "Unless the agency slows down the traffic, someone may make a mistake, and then are they going to blame it on the controller?"

By contrast, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said, "This is the safest period in aviation history." She said the contract allowed the agency to more easily move staff to meet the needs of a changing airline industry.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey says the imposed contract "is saving taxpayers $1.9 billion over five years . . . to invest in 21st century air traffic systems."

The three-year average of fatal accidents on commercial flights has dropped to a record low of .017 per 100,000 departures. Fatal accidents on private planes dropped from 354 in 2005 to a record low of 299 in 2006, and Brown says this year is below last year's pace.

The union says these national figures conceal risky situations in towers, terminal approach and at regional control centers.

Some of the union's examples:

* At the Cleveland en route center, the nation's fourth-busiest facility, 29 fully certified controllers have retired since the contract was imposed. Nineteen others have been promoted to management and seven have transferred, leaving 366 certified controllers. Operational errors -- in which planes fly closer than they are supposed to -- soared to 34 this fiscal year, with a month left, compared with 16 in fiscal 2006.

* The Chicago en route center, the fifth-busiest facility, has lost 40 certified controllers because of retirement and other reasons, leaving 360. So far, the center has recorded 21 operation errors for the fiscal year, compared with 12 the previous year.

* In New York, Southern California and Charlotte, N.C., on-the-job training of controllers was temporarily suspended to evaluate a rash of errors.

* At New York's LaGuardia Airport on July 5, a trainee mistakenly cleared a 50-seat Comair jet to cross a runway on which a Delta 737 was landing at 150 mph. They missed each other by a few hundred feet. The trainee, supervised by a trainer, was handling more than 24 planes on the ground. A previous controller had complained that the heavy load should be divided into two separate positions.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the LaGuardia incident and five others at airports this year -- two in Denver and one each in San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Los Angeles. So-called runway incursions were so frequent that Blakey called a daylong industry brainstorming session at the FAA.

"These errors are the calling cards of mental fatigue," said Chicago Center controller Bryan Zilonis, a union vice president.

At the FAA, Brown paints a rosier picture of operational errors -- those cases in which planes en route come within 1,000 feet of each other vertically or within 5 miles laterally, or within 3 miles near airports. The 12 months that ended last Oct. 1 saw the first drop in operational errors in seven years, she said. "We're on target to continue the reduction in operational errors this year."

And she denies that trainees compromise safety.

"The raw number doesn't tell you their skill level," Brown said. A trainee is qualified separately for each work position and can safely work qualified positions long before being fully certified to work all positions, she said.

Union spokesman Doug Church said a transferred controller, during training for his new location, was involved in the incident at LaGuardia, where, he said, on-the-job training can take more than two years.

Church said the FAA changed the definitions of operational errors this summer in a way that reduces their number. An FAA PowerPoint description of the new definitions says planes can come 10% closer to each other before the action is labeled an operational error. Using the revised criteria, there would have been 298 of the more serious errors in 2006, instead of the 627 under the old definition, according to the document.

Forrey predicted that retirements would climb unless the contract is reopened for a negotiated settlement. A pending House bill would do that, but the Bush administration is opposed.

The FAA-imposed contract cut starting pay by 30%, eliminated incentive pay for experienced controllers and gave managers more authority over staffing. Since last September, controllers have filed 220,000 grievances.

The FAA expects 800 retirements this fiscal year, Brown said. The figure has been revised upward twice from 643.

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