Air traffic controller crisis doesn’t inspire confidence in safety of flying |

Air traffic controller crisis doesn’t inspire confidence in safety of flying

Guy W. Farmer
Special to the Appeal

A recent and very troubling air traffic safety report by the government’s General Accounting Office confirms what I’ve been hearing from a friend who is an air traffic controller at one of the nation’s busiest airports – namely, that President Bush’s decision to “privatize” the Federal Aviation Administration puts the flying public at risk.

“I can tell you that controllers are sick of working for an employer who hates us,” my friend told me in a recent e-mail. “(FAA) Management continues to receive their raises (while) controllers are expected to work busy traffic by themselves … I find myself tired all the time, and making many more mistakes due to fatigue and shorter breaks.” Pretty scary stuff.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the recent GAO report found that “there is a high risk of a catastrophic runway collision” occurring in the U.S. because of faltering federal leadership, malfunctioning technology and overworked air traffic controllers. Although GAO investigators gave the FAA credit for reducing runway safety incidents from a peak of 407 in 2001, they said such incidents are on the rise again and noted that “no single office is taking charge of assessing the causes of runway safety problems.”

“This report makes it clear that the Bush administration is cutting corners and failing to put passenger safety first,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who requested the GAO study. “The FAA is taking too many chances and ignoring too many red flags.”

Since 1990, 63 people have died in six U.S. runway collisions, and there have been several dramatic near-misses this year. On Aug. 16, two commercial jets carrying 296 passengers came within 37 feet of colliding at Los Angeles International Airport, and on July 11, a Delta Boeing 757 touched down at Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and had to take off immediately in order to avoid hitting a United Airbus 320 mistakenly on the same runway. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating those incidents and others in Denver and San Francisco.

Exactly one month ago, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Patrick Forrey warned participants in a Washington, D.C., air traffic safety conference that the continuing lack of a labor-management agreement between the FAA and controllers “is damaging the U.S. economy and hurting travelers in the form of delayed flights and decreased safety. … We are working our 440th day (now 470) without a contract … because air traffic controllers cannot go on strike and we cannot withhold our critical services from the public.” The only time that air traffic controllers went on strike, more than 20 years ago, President Reagan fired them.

Critical Staff Shortages

“The FAA’s imposed work and pay rules have fueled a critical staffing shortage, resulting in controller fatigue,” Forrey added. “There were 40 percent more operational errors this year than last, and in the past two months errors have increased more than 36 percent.” As a result of what he called unfair work and pay rules, Forrey asserted that nearly 1,000 of the nation’s most experienced air traffic controllers chose to retire between September 2006, and last October, resulting in short-staffing at busy airports and regional air traffic control centers. Only 16 of the retiring controllers had reached the mandatory retirement age of 56.

“Don’t believe the FAA spin that they saw this coming and quote, ‘had a plan,'” Forrey cautioned. “They have been overwhelmed and caught off guard … If you thought 2007 was bad for delays, just wait until 1,500 more veteran controllers retire between now and the end of the 2008 summer travel season.”

“Make no mistake about it,” he continued, “our system is on the brink of a total breakdown because of the careless and reckless actions of the FAA, which failed to get ahead of a staffing crisis in the making. The FAA, out of a business-first mentality of saving money, is forcing veteran controllers with more than 20 or more years of experience out the door while they rush to bring in new hires at (lower) wages.”

None of this is very reassuring to the flying public, including your favorite Appeal columnist, an Air Force veteran and confirmed white-knuckle flyer. What bothers me most is that politically appointed Bush FAA officials apparently believe they can operate the nation’s air traffic control system “like a business.” But air traffic safety isn’t a business; it’s a public trust and flight safety is no place to cut corners.

Although former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey claimed that air traffic delays could be reduced by opening up military air space to commercial airliners, Forrey counters that her fix won’t work because “there are 7.5 percent fewer fully-trained air traffic controllers … to handle 4 percent more traffic. If anything, delays will increase, not decrease,” which is bad news for those of us who are flying during the busy holiday season. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings at this joyous time of year, but I believe my controller friend when he says the nation’s air traffic control system is in jeopardy because of a few high-ranking political appointees at the FAA. That’s why I join him, Forrey and the NATCA in calling for a new labor-management agreement that will retain our best qualified air traffic controllers when we need them the most.

• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a white-knuckle flyer who spends more time in the “friendly skies” than he’d like to, especially at this busy time of year.