Knowing when to call for help is a critical element in learning to fly, in fact, it’s pretty darned important for survival in life as well. In an emergency, most people often don’t have the mental and sometimes the physical skills to see them through. Two or more heads really do work better than one.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association sent out a news release and organized a telephone press briefing today to explain their declaration of a controller staffing emergency. As many of you may know, I spent 10 years of my life pushing airplanes in VFR towers and radar rooms myself in another life so being short staffed is not exactly a new topic for me. I’m not going to rewrite the news release here. I’d encourage you to go look for yourself. The statements are pretty eye opening.
What really made my jaw drop today though was the private e-mail I saw from a regional NATCA rep. It read simply, “Please help us, help us.”
Staffing levels at ATC facilities are still dropping due to retirements, faster than FAA can backfill with experienced people. FAA imposed a contract on controllers in 2006 right after John Carr left office as the union’s president. With terms imposed on them, controllers began leaving the agency rather than work under rules they had no part in adopting.
But there’s more to the story than simply the numbers of veteran controllers the agency is losing. These same veteran controllers also work a second job of sorts as on-the-job instructors for new hire air traffic controllers. The loss of experienced instructors to guide the new people is a crisis unto itself.
While NATCA and I have not always agreed on everything, as a pilot and a former controller, today’s Mayday trumps everything, much like we saw an Alaskan bush pilot save four people on Saturday. When someone calls for help, you dive in help and ask questions later.
The dramatic increase in the number of close calls both on the ground and in the air over the past six months, as well as the November GAO report warning that safety in the nation’s skies will become even more compromised without significant change seems to be falling on deaf ears at 800 Independence Ave. Controllers are working way too much forced overtime to make the system function.
Listening in on the conference call with NATCA’s president Patrick Forrey plenty of reporters had questions, most focusing on whether the airspace around one particular airport or another is safe. What I asked Forrey was about the leadership issue at FAA – or the lack of it – my particular hot button, not of course that safety of airspace isn’t.
“The staffing problem is not new,” I began with Forrey. “We’ve been talking about this since Marion Blakey was administrator. Has acting administrator Bobby Sturgell been telling you anything new about the problem since Marion left?”
“No. There has been no change in FAA’s position on staffing,” Forrey replied. “In fact, Sturgell has not been a part of any of the discussions we’ve had with the agency recently as we’ve tried to address safety and staffing problems.” Sturgell has also run into a serious Congressional confirmation roadblock in recent weeks. So at present, the nation’s aviation system is running with part-time help of sorts.
FAA has told the public it hired 1,800 or so controllers last year to help ease the crisis. The problem stems from most of those people not being certified to work alone. That’s a process that can take years. FAA is also not mentioning how many of the 1,800 have failed the training process, so essentially 1,800 is really a meaningless figure.
So is this story about a labor group that’s really pissed off at their boss? Absolutely. Would it help if FAA went back to the bargaining table? Sure. But that still wouldn’t solve the experience problem completely.
This story is also about an experienced group of people who are keeping the air traffic control system patched together with chewing gum and string. It’s gonna break somewhere soon while the Congress deals with really important issues like helping to hire a boss in the White House and funding the war in Iraq.
I have good friends at FAA (yes, believe it or not!) and some are trying to solve the controller staffing problem. For instance, hiring new controllers means FAA is doing something. But what is also clearly occurring is that senior FAA leadership is not watching the results of their efforts. Like it or not, FAA is simply not doing enough. I’d rather not see Bobbie on TV trying to talk his way out of a fatal midair or a runway incursion.
I saw a midair collision once early on in my air traffic control career. I never want to see one again.
Help these men and women out, not simply because they’re asking, but because just as we put our lives into the hands of the pilots and flight attendants when we step into the cabin of an airplane, we’re putting our own lives and those of our families in the hands of a bunch of hard-working controllers too. But these folks are tired. The controller on duty when Comair 5191 crashed on takeoff was running on about two hours of sleep.
Think about that the next time you fly. This will link you directly to your Congressional representatives. Please get on this one today. Like we’ve seen in Iowa and New Hampshire, one vote counts for plenty.