News Article - February 24, 2007

Union blames understaffing for compounding delays at PHL  
  WASHINGTON -- The Federal Aviation Administration risks placing the wrong number of air traffic controllers at key locations because it does not have a standard for how many it needs at each airport, according to a recent government analysis. The report by the Department of Transportation follows an analysis that found the nation's air traffic control towers were understaffed, which could be made worse by an expected wave of retirements.

   While staffing levels have not been linked to any accidents in the airspace controlled by Philadelphia International Airport, union officials there say it has compounded delays at the airport, which already has one of the nation's worst records for on-time arrivals and departures. Don Chapman, president of the Philadelphia local chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the inspector general's report verifies that the FAA needs to hire more controllers to work in airport towers.

   "The system is getting worse and worse, and delays are getting worse and worse, so I hope this spurs them to do the right thing," he said. The control tower at Philadelphia International Airport is staffed with 86 controllers -- well below the 109 authorized under the union's previous FAA contract.

   The 78 percent staffing level is well below the national average of 89 percent. New Castle Airport, where only Delta Air Lines operates commercial passenger flights, was at 75 percent, according to the analysis. Staffing levels contribute to delays at airports across the country, but are only a piece of the puzzle, Chapman said.

   He likened the traffic buildup to lines at grocery store cash registers: The more lines that are open, the faster shoppers can check out. But the latest government analysis, prepared by the Department of Transportation inspector general, said the FAA has made "moderate progress" in addressing the shortages by preparing for a wave of controller retirements throughout its 300 facilities.

   But the agency should show what progress it has made in developing staffing standards for each facility, "a foremost necessity in effectively placing newly hired controllers where they're needed most," the report states. Instead, investigators found various staffing numbers being quoted by the FAA, while the union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, quoted levels it had previously negotiated with the FAA.

   "Without accurate facility-level planning, FAA runs the risk of placing too many or too few controllers at key locations," the report states. The review, conducted between June and December, follows a series of stories published by Gannett News Service and The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal in December highlighting controller understaffing, underestimated retirement projections, increased controller errors, and the agency's lack of staffing standards for individual facilities.

   About 70 percent of the FAA's air traffic controllers will become eligible to retire through 2015. The FAA plans to offset retirements by hiring almost 12,000 controllers. Investigators recommended the FAA refine how it projects retirements, which it has underestimated the past three years. The FAA also should identify the total costs of its work force plan, the report said.

   Union spokesman Doug Church said the FAA doesn't have a handle on how to put the right number of controllers where they're needed. Controllers say the FAA also failed to take into account how new work rules imposed after a breakdown in contract talks would cause some controllers to retire as soon as they became eligible. FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown referred to the FAA's written response to the report, which mostly concurred, except for the recommendation to refine its retirement projection. The memo says the FAA increased its new hires during the last quarter of the year to compensate for the increased retirements.

   The FAA will publish staffing ranges for all airports in the next couple of weeks, Brown wrote in an e-mail. The report, however, says the FAA's assessments won't be completed until the end of 2008. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., said he was dismayed by the inspector general's report.

   His district includes Lexington, Ky., where Comair Flight 5191 crashed on Aug. 27, killing 49 people. At the time of the accident, one controller was in the Blue Grass Airport's tower, contrary to FAA policy, which required two. "Ensuring the safety of the traveling public is the most important responsibility of the FAA," Chandler said. "I simply cannot understand why the FAA has not made the staffing of control towers a priority, especially in wake of the Comair 5191 tragedy."