FAA looks at cutting airport controllers

Under new guidelines, BWI staff target could drop from 29 to 22

March 08, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Reporter

The Federal Aviation Administration issued new staffing targets for air traffic controllers at U.S. airports and control facilities yesterday that, in many cases, open the door to significant reductions even as flights increase.

Under the guidelines, Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport could operate with as few as 22 air traffic controllers - down from a staffing target of 29 adopted in a 1998 labor agreement. The airport currently has 26 controllers, one of them a recent hire.

The potential work force reduction at BWI is part of a national "Plan for the Future: 2007-2016" released by FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey yesterday.

The plan was immediately denounced by the air traffic controllers union as a threat to passengers' safety.

FAA administrators said they would update the staffing ranges annually to accommodate fluctuations in air travel.

The new targets are being implemented at a time when airline traffic has rebounded strongly from a drop after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. FAA projections indicate the number of flights the U.S. system will handle will grow by about a third over the next decade - from 46 million last year to 61 million in 2017, far outstripping a modest anticipated growth in the number of controllers.

The plan calls for gradually increasing the ranks of controllers over the next 10 years by about 10 percent from last year's roughly 14,600 to about 16,000. Much of the future hiring will be to replace a large number of controllers who are nearing retirement.

"If we weren't talking about human life, this would be an absolute joke," said Doug Church, communications director of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Church said the previous staffing guidelines had been developed by FAA management in consultation with the controllers union. He said the new targets had been imposed by management with no consultation.

"They are staffing to budget - what they can afford," he said.

But Blakey said at a Washington news conference that the new staffing levels are more realistic and said going by the 1998 guidelines would be like planning on the basis of a 1998 weather forecast.

"It is critical that we staff facilities based on actual and forecasted traffic demands," she said. "We are confident that the new controller hires will be able to meet the needs of the future."

Blakey's deputy, Robert A. Sturgell, said the FAA became overstaffed with controllers under the union agreement - increasing hiring by 4 percent in the years after 9/11 while traffic slumped by 40 percent. He said safety remains the agency's No. 1 priority.

FAA's staffing of its towers became an issue last year after a crash of a Comair commuter plane in Lexington, Ky., on Aug 27 that killed 49 people. At the time of the crash, the tower was staffed by a single controller who didn't notice that the plane was taking off from the wrong runway. Comair later sued the FAA, which acknowledged that two controllers should have been on duty but denied any negligence. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating potential causes of the crash.

The 1998 agreement on staffing was arrived at through negotiations between the Clinton administration's FAA and the air traffic controllers union. But relations between the union and the FAA became more hostile under the Bush administration, which let the staffing agreement lapse in 2003 and took a hard-line stance in bargaining on a new contract. Last year, the agency declared an impasse in negotiations and imposed its own work rules - effectively freezing out the union.

The staffing targets announced yesterday are the first adopted for individual facilities since the old guidelines lapsed. Instead of setting a hard target, the FAA adopted a range for each facility - a move it said would give it more flexibility to adapt to changes in airline traffic. In many cases, the high end of the range is about at the level of last year's staffing.

In addition to the potential reductions at BWI, the plan could bring significant cuts in the staffing targets at other regional airports as well as the major control centers serving the Baltimore-Washington area.

Washington's Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport could absorb somewhat heavier cuts.

Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in Vint Hill, Va., which guides airplanes to local airports before handing them off to the terminal-based controllers, would operate with as few as 147 or as many as 179 under the plan. It had a staffing target of 211 under the 1998 agreement but had 165 controllers as of Sept. 30, the FAA said.

Chris Sutherland, the union president at the facility, said controllers there are working mandatory overtime. But Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, disputed that, saying any overtime worked at the facility was voluntary.

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