FAA admits fault

The US air controller crisis might finally get the President’s attention following this admission:

The Federal Aviation Administration admitted it broke its own rules in putting only one controller on duty.

We often forget how important the controllers are, since they are the least noticed when they are doing their best work. For some much needed perspective, I went back and reviewed the 1981 testimony to a US congressional subcommittee by the Air Traffic Controllers Organization President Robert Poli:

Controllers constantly face countless situations which require them to make decisions affecting the lives of thousands of people. … Day in and day out, they must guard against even the smallest error, for a mistake could kill hundreds. There is no room for guesswork, nor is there time to sit back and leisurely consider a traffic situation. Decisions must be swift, positive and correct. … Being able to accept such an intense level of responsibility is at the heart of the controller’s job. However, its residual effects are felt in every aspect of his life. Over time, while dreading the terrible consequences of one incorrect control decision, the controller loses the fight to the knowledge that he is human and, in the long run, fallible. The strain created by this internal war generates insidious effects on the controller’s entire life. They can manifest themselves in physical or mental disorders, social withdrawal, marital trouble or concealed alcoholism.

This was in the weeks and days up to the decision by President Reagan to fire over 10,000 striking controllers and begin private contracting for air traffic control. Fast forward to 2004 when complaints very similar to those in 1981 were again coming from the controllers facing staff shortages. In particular, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association requested in 2003 that an additional 1,000 new air traffic controllers be authorized each year for three years.

The current controller workforce is stretched to the limit and we cannot call up the reserves. There are no reserves. That is why we also ask this Subcommittee to stop the FAA from terminating, removing, transferring or reassigning any air traffic control specialist solely because the agency erred in hiring that individual after he or she reached the maximum entry age.

President Bush instead passed a four-year $60 billion bill that increased the number of privately funded control towers and gave funding for only 302 controllers.

So you might want to take a moment to think about all the money being spent to keep America safe and how it is really working when understaffed and often underpaid controllers have been warning of very clear and present danger. National Air Traffic Controllers Association president John Carr put it this way in his 2003 testimony to a US congressional committee:

The thousands of controllers hired during the post-PATCO recovery period will reach retirement eligibility soon. Based on FAA data, over 50% of the workforce will be eligible to retire by 2010. The Government Accounting Office reports the number is even higher. Currently, there are not enough controllers to fill the gap. A new hire is not a replacement for a full performance level retiree. It takes anywhere from three to five years for a new hire to become a full performance level air traffic controller. Most of this training is on-the-job and requires a certified controller to staff each position along with the trainee.

Therefore, the FAA must immediately begin hiring and training the next generation of air traffic controllers to prepare for the wave of upcoming retirements, the increased traffic and system capacity enhancements. Addressing this issue can no longer be deferred because of the significant time required to train new controllers. If we do not begin to hire and train new controllers today, we will be left with a system that is woefully short staffed and unable to accommodate the demands for air transportation.

Predictable disaster?

Edited to add (8/30/2006):

The Associated Press has provided some more insight into the Kentucky controller and crash. Short-staffed, the controller on the job also appears to have been asked to carry long shifts with little rest:

National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said the controller had only nine hours off between work shifts Saturday. That was just enough to meet federal rules, which require a minimum of eight hours off between shifts, Hersman said.

“He advised our team that he got approximately two hours of sleep,” Hersman said.

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