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FAA urged to do more to bolster California air traffic controller ranks

April 28, 2009|Dan Weikel

Though hiring is underway to offset a dramatic loss of air traffic controllers to retirement, the Federal Aviation Administration must concentrate on training new workers and retaining veteran controllers at busy Los Angeles International Airport and two key radar facilities in California that guide planes between airports, a new audit shows.

Released Monday, the 27-page report by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general recommended a variety of improvements to bolster air traffic control staffing at the nation's fourth-busiest airport and the Southern and Northern California Terminal Radar Approach Control facilities. TRACON operations guide aircraft through some of the most crowded and complex airspace in the nation.

"Ensuring these facilities remain adequately staffed with qualified air traffic controllers is vital to the safety and efficiency" of the national airspace system, according to the audit, which was requested last June by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

The inspector general recommended that the FAA validate the staffing levels at the two tracking centers; improve financial incentives to keep experienced controllers on the job; provide enough instructors to train an unprecedented surge in new employees; and address a dramatic increase in overtime paid to controllers, which has grown almost 900% in the last two years at LAX.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 29, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Metro Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Air safety audit: An article in Tuesday's Section A about an audit of air traffic control centers quoted Mike Foote, a representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., as saying that reductions in controller staffing at LAX were due to declines in flight operations. The comment was actually made by Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

"The report acknowledges what the FAA has said for years -- that hiring and training large numbers of new controllers is a big challenge, but it is a challenge we have prepared for," said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman in Los Angeles.

The FAA already has assessed the staffing levels at the southern and northern centers and has begun looking into overtime increases at all three facilities, Gregor said.

Of particular concern to auditors is the Southern California TRACON, where an unusually high number of air traffic controllers, about 32% of the staff, are in training. The national average is about 27%.

The Southern California center handled about 2.25 million flights last year, the busiest operation of its type in the nation. In 2004 it had 236 fully certified and eight partially certified air traffic controllers. As of December 2008, it had 161 fully certified controllers and 76 trainees, of which 24 were partially certified.

Auditors noted that the percentage of controllers in training there could grow to more than 40% by the end of the year. The report also noted that overtime had increased 400% at the operation since 2006.

The inspector general's office found that air traffic control at LAX has remained at required staffing levels of between 39 and 47 controllers including trainees for the last decade. As of December 2008, about 20% of the controller workforce was in training, the report stated.

But auditors said the number of fully certified air traffic controllers at LAX declined from 45 in 2004 to 39 in 2008 and that the airport has had difficulty keeping trainees on the job, losing seven of 19 new controllers in 2007 and 2008.

In addition, the audit stated that LAX has had a hard time attracting and retaining controllers that come from airports across the country because of a lack of financial incentives. Controllers say that transferring to LAX can result in salary reductions.

Mike Foote, an L.A. representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., said the LAX tower used to have more fully certified controllers and that the authorized staffing was once between 47 and 51.

He said the lower authorized level of 39 to 47 controllers reflects a large decline in flight operations at LAX, which have dropped more than 20% since 2000.

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

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