SoCal Air Traffic Control Relies on Trainees: Report

The nation's busiest air traffic control facility in Southern California relies heavily on inexperienced trainees, who are expected to make up more than 40 percent of controllers there later this year, according to a report released Monday.

The Transportation Department inspector general report expressed concern about air traffic controller staffing levels at the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility near San Diego, as well at the Northern California Terminal Radar Approach Facility near Sacramento. The two facilities handle planes approaching and leaving California airports.

There are currently 76 trainee controllers -- 32 percent of the work force -- at the Southern California TRACON, the report said. But the Federal Aviation Administration plans to hire another 34 trainees later this year to make up for expected retirements, raising the share of controllers at the facility who are trainees to more than 40 percent.

Nationally, about 27 percent of the controllers at radar facilities are trainees, the report said.

Controllers' workload at Southern California TRACON has increased 19 percent since 1997, and overtime has increased nearly400 percent since 2006, the report said. The facility handled nearly 2.25 million operations last year.

The report also said that overtime by controllers working in the tower at Los Angeles International Airport has increased more than 800 percent since 2006, and was up 120 percent at the Northern California TRACON. The report recommended that FAA "take immediate action" to address staffing and overtime concerns.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who requested the report, sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Monday, urging that the level of experienced traffic controllers at the Southern California TRACON be boosted.

"I strongly encourage you to develop a plan to address the staffing crisis before safety is compromised," Feinstein said in her letter.

"In my view Southern California TRACON, which handles some of the most complex airspace in the United States, should be staffed with our most experienced controllers, not more than 100 controllers who are yet to receive full certification," the letter said.
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the agency is offering $25,000bonuses to Southern California TRACON controllers who delay retirement by one year, and $27,000 bonuses to experienced controllers elsewhere in the country who agree to relocate to Southern California.

"I think the report acknowledges what we've said all along, which is that hiring and training new controllers is a challenge, but that it's a challenge that we're prepared for and that we're meeting," Gregor said.

Melvin Davis, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association representative at Southern California TRACON, said that as the share of inexperienced controllers has increased at the facility in recent years, so have mistakes that could jeopardize lives.

Instances in which controllers have pointed planes at each other or pointed planes at mountainsides have increased, Davis said.

"It has taken a normally difficult and stressful job and made it next to impossible," Davis said. "It is directly and dramatically impacting the ability to accomplish the mission. I see fatigue and human mistakes at an alarming level compared to the very recent past when we've had a more normal staff level."

Gregor said there was a spike in serious errors by controllers at the facility in late 2007 and early 2008, but errors are down in the first six months of 2009. FAA operates on a federal fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1 and ends on Sept. 30.

A contract dispute between controllers and the Bush administration led to the FAA freezing controllers' pay in September 2006, Davis said. That, in turn, accelerated retirements by controllers and led to the hiring of greater numbers of inexperienced trainees, Davis said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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