Controller Staffing Plummets at Busy California FAA Facility; Safety Now an Issue as Errors on the Rise

Jan 29, 2010, 11:19 ET from National Air Traffic Controllers Association

SAN DIEGO, Jan. 29 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The number of fully trained and certified air traffic controllers at Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), the nation's busiest Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control facility that handles the climb and approach phases of flight, has plummeted 26 percent in the last six years, according to new staffing information released today by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Making matters worse is the FAA's local top management official at the facility, who issued a memo last Friday mandating the use of an untested piece of equipment designed to measure spacing between planes in response to what he called an "increase in 'Losses of Separation' in the last month," including an incident Jan. 19 in which an American Airlines regional jet came within three miles of a Boeing 767 that was on its way to land at LAX. FAA rules require five miles behind large jets such as the 767 to protect against the effects of wake turbulence.

The local FAA memo can be found here:

In 2004, SoCal TRACON was staffed with 239 fully trained and certified controllers (called "CPCs" for Certified Professional Controllers), with seven more in training. The total fell to 217 CPCs in 2005 and 199 CPCs in 2006, with 23 trainees. Today, the total stands at 176 CPCs, with 82 trainees, many with no prior FAA or military controller experience which puts them at a severe disadvantage for successful training at SCT.

"Asking a new trainee with no prior controller experience to make it here is like asking a person with no flight experience to fly Boeing 747s," SoCal TRACON NATCA Facility Representative Mel Davis said. "It's possible, and we have some success stories, but what we really need are more experienced controllers to transfer here. The problem facing the FAA is trying to get these experienced veterans to leave their short- staffed facilities to come to another short-staffed facility, which leaves us in a perilous position."

Concluded Davis: "The bottom line is we need more experienced controllers to come to SoCal TRACON, we need more space to accommodate them and we need updated equipment to train them."

SOURCE National Air Traffic Controllers Association