News Article - December 17 2006

Air traffic controllers say FAA is lax on safety

By SUMMER HARLOW, The News Journal

  Philadelphia International Airport has become the busiest airport in the Northeast, but the number of workers monitoring air traffic hasn't kept pace with the increase in flights. A lack of air traffic controllers is compounding delays at the airport -- which already has one of the nation's most dismal on-time records -- and increasing the potential for accidents, says the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

   The tower at New Castle Airport also is understaffed, according to the union. "As staffing levels decrease, I think operational errors will go up, or delays will go up," said Tim Duffy, a controller who retired from the Philadelphia airport's tower in June. "One or the other will happen." The Federal Aviation Administration, though, said both the Philadelphia and greater Wilmington towers are staffed adequately.

   "Under no circumstance has safety been compromised, nor would the FAA in any way have less than the number of controllers we need to safely handle traffic at any airport," said FAA spokesman Jim Peters. "Safety is our number one mission." The FAA and the controllers are in the midst of a labor dispute, with the controllers requesting that staffing standards be put in place.

   The last staffing benchmark, from a contract that expired in 2003, authorized 109 positions at the Philadelphia tower and 12 at the greater Wilmington tower, according to data provided by the union to Gannett News Service. The FAA expects a new staffing yardstick for each facility to be completed in the spring. However, based on the 2003 authorizations, the Philadelphia tower is only 78 percent staffed, with 85 controllers -- 23 of whom are trainees. The Delaware tower is 75 percent staffed, with nine controllers. Those numbers are below the 89 percent national average for staffing levels.

   The Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the next closest facility, is staffed at 86 percent. Staffing levels could deteriorate further as 18 Philadelphia, and four greater Wilmington, controllers are eligible for retirement in 2007. It typically takes two to three years for a trainee controller to become certified. Because the benchmarks are from an expired 2003 contract between the FAA and the union, they no longer apply, Peters said.

   The problem with those numbers, he said, is that they allocated positions to geographic regions, taking away the agency's ability to determine adequate staffing levels at each tower. They also disregard actual operation numbers, he said. "Some facilities were busier than others, so there was uneven distribution," he said. Also, he said, following 9-11, airline operations dropped 9 percent, further reducing the need for the minimum staffing requirements.

   "We don't project that system operations will return to the high levels that existed prior to Sept 11, 2001, at least for another three to four years," Peters said. "But NATCA has taken the position that despite the drop in operations, they want the agency to return to the fixed authorized levels and we're not going to do that." Mike Boyd, president of the Colorado-based aviation consulting firm The Boyd Group, acknowledged that this is a union-management issue.

   "But that being said, the controllers are right," he said. "This is an accident waiting to happen and the only reason more accidents haven't happened is because of controllers." The Boyd Group has researched the air traffic control system for a dozen years and testified before Congress on numerous occasions, Boyd said.

   "Nothing has been done and the problem is getting worse," he said, citing the increase in near-misses. "But because no one dies, the FAA says safety wasn't compromised."

Errors take off

  The Philadelphia tower reported nine operational errors -- controller mistakes that can be as bad as putting a plane in another's path -- in 2006, down from 17 in 2005, according to the FAA. The greater Wilmington tower, which only handles about 450 planes per day, hasn't had any operational errors in the past five years, Peters said. But the number of controllers' errors nationwide has risen dramatically -- up 68 percent to 1,506 in 2005 from 894 in 1998, according to the FAA.

   Don Chapman, president of the local controllers association and a controller at the Philadelphia tower, said part of the problem is that controllers' responsibilities are increasing as the number of flights increases. Ideally, he said, a controller would monitor all air traffic in a given sector, or section of air space. But now controllers handle traffic in two or three sectors.

   "A human being can only master a certain amount of things going through the mind at the same time," Chapman said. "Controllers won't allow themselves to become overwhelmed, so to prevent that, they stop traffic, or reduce traffic." Chapman likened the situation to a line at a grocery store. If only one check-out lane is open, shoppers will stand in a long line. But if three lanes are open, more shoppers can check out faster.

   While a number of factors, such as weather and limited runway space, contribute to delays, the staffing levels compound the problem, Chapman said. "It's a cumulative effect," he said. If two controllers could split the traffic, travelers would be on their way to their destination that much faster, he said. Boyd said the FAA should be blamed for delays, not the airlines or controllers.

   "Airlines actually put extra time into their schedules because they know the air traffic control system will put them behind," he said. "Airlines schedule for demand, and the air traffic control system has not kept pace with demand." Linda Barnes, who flew into Philadelphia on Friday, said she's heard stories about delays at the airport.

   "Today we had to circle for about 10 minutes before we could land," said Barnes, of Columbus, Ohio. "When we were coming in it was bumpy but the pilot said he couldn't do anything about it because there was a plane above us and a plane under us. You don't want to hear that." Peters said that the number of air traffic controllers has nothing to do with the delays. Instead, weather is the number one reason flights are delayed at the Philadelphia airport, he said.

   "Not having controllers doesn't compound the delays," he said. "We make sure we have the right number of controllers on shift to handle the traffic." If delays are building, controllers can prevent planes from landing or taking off, Peters said. "There's any number of operational factors that contribute to delays, but not having enough controllers is not one of them." A lack of staffing isn't the only concern, Boyd said. The equipment, he said, is old and outdated.

   Chapman said that in 2002, precision runway monitoring equipment -- at a price tag of at least $9 million -- was installed at the Philadelphia airport to allow planes to land simultaneously during inclement weather. The tower, though, doesn't have enough people to run the equipment, he said, so in the past four years it has been used only about 25 times -- 20 of which were for training purposes during good weather, he said.

   Peters said only one controller is needed to run the equipment, which he said was taken out of service because of a software glitch.

Putting out the fires

  Duffy, who retired early, said he often felt like there weren't enough controllers in the tower. He discounts the view that perhaps some towers have been overstaffed. "Firemen, 99 percent of the time, aren't doing anything," Duffy said. "But thankfully there's 15 of them there when there's a fire. If you were to average it out, one per hour for 15 hours would not be enough. We should be overstaffed by a few to handle all situations."

   And those situations can be tricky, especially when coordinating New Castle Airport traffic with Philadelphia International Airport traffic, said Chuck Emmons, a controller at the greater Wilmington tower. "It becomes mind-boggling," he said. "It all has to happen perfectly, and it has to be right the first time." Still, Boyd said, passengers should not be afraid to travel. "You just have to recognize that the system is not as safe as it could be and nowhere near as efficient as it needs to be," he said. "What's keeping you safe are those air traffic controllers because they're working hard to make sure planes don't hit each other."

Source - Delaware Online