News Article - March 09, 2007

Phila. to Lose Traffic Controllers  
  New Castle Airport will gain at least one air traffic controller, but Philadelphia International Airport stands to lose as many as 13 controllers under new staffing levels the Federal Aviation Administration issued this week. The potential reductions in controllers at the Philadelphia tower come even as flight traffic -- and accompanying delays -- continue to increase. Under the new staffing benchmarks, Philadelphia International Airport will operate with 71 to 87 air traffic controllers -- that's down from 109 controllers authorized under the now-defunct union contract between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

   At New Castle Airport, 10 to 12 air traffic controllers are approved in the new staffing targets. The old contract, which expired in 2003, had called for 12 controllers. As of Sept. 30, the Philadelphia tower was staffed with 84 controllers -- just three less than the new authorized maximum. At the New Castle tower, though, only nine controllers -- one less than the mini- mum -- were working as of Sept. 30. The air traffic controllers union criticizes the FAA's plan, saying it shifts the focus away from safety, concentrating on cutting costs, instead. As staffing levels decrease, controllers say, the potential for errors and delays increases.

   "It's a formula for disaster and will result in disaster if the agency doesn't wake up," said Don Chapman, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the union. At the Philadelphia airport, which managed to reduce its operational errors from 17 in 2005 to nine in 2006, the prospect of fewer controllers is especially disconcerting, union members say, because the airport already has one of the country's worst rankings for on-time departures and arrivals. The FAA says the plan gives the agency flexibility to base the number of controllers on the volume of traffic. The number of controllers specified in the old contract was arbitrary and not tied to workload, said Arlene Murray, FAA spokeswoman.

   The FAA analyzed traffic at each of the country's air traffic control facilities to come up with a range of controllers that is more than adequate to handle needs, she said. Currently more than 14,000 controllers work at 314 facilities. They are responsible for directing about 50,000 aircraft each day.

   At Philadelphia International Airport, the busiest in the Northeast, controllers guide between 1,600 and 1,700 aircraft a day. The New Castle controllers handle about 450 planes per day. The FAA intends to hire more than 15,000 controllers in the next decade, but many of those new hires will be to replace retirees -- about 72 percent of controllers will be eligible for retirement in the next 10 years.

Source - Deleware Online