The House aviation subcommittee is holding a hearing today on air traffic control facility staffing, “including concerns about staffing alignment and training at such facilities.” Here is the subcommittee’s background paper. Here’s what happened today:
Hank Krakowski, the COO of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) is the first witness. He first emphasizes the agency’s safety record in light of steep challenges. “Combination of training, teamwork, and technology” is the cause. FAA is convening a fatigue safety summit next week to address fatigue on the part of pilots and controllers. “We plan to hire 2000 controllers this year.” ATO is deploying more high-powered training simulators for controllers. ATO is also offering incentives to retain controllers eligible for retirement. He also says he is working with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) on hammering out a new contract.
Department of Transportation inspector general Calvin L. Scovel speaks next. The IG’s office has just complete a report on the issue of ATC staffing. See the inspector general’s report here [PDF]. FAA sees more controllers retiring than projected, but it is hiring more than projected. This is producing an overall less experienced workforce. Scovel’s recommendations: (1) FAA must improve control facility training. Must set standards for how much of a share of all controllers “developmental controllers” (i.e., trainees) may make up at a facility. It must clarify and centralize the organizational structure of the training process. (2) “FAA must address controller human factors” — situational awareness, fatigue, etc. Especially important with the influx of new controllers. (3) FAA must ensure “consistency and accuracy” in reporting controllers’ operational errors with respect to runway incursions, etc. The agency has in the past relied on self-reporting, which has not been sufficiently successful.
Next up: Gerald Dillingham of the Government Accountability Office. “Controllers are retiring faster than expected.” Only a small minority of these are retiring because of the mandatory retirement age: 17 out of 1,600. FAA therefore upped its recruitment and retention goals. Dillingham notes that 145 of 315 ATC sites are overstaffed and 12 are understaffed. (Overstaffing is for training purposes, he notes.) “Controllers at some of the nations busiest airports are working six-day weeks because of understaffing” — his bigger concern. Concern over FAA’s disagreement with NATCA about agreement on fatigue rules. He is also concerned about the growing share of developmental controllers in facilities. Two training concerns: attrition rate for developmental controllers has increased, from 6 percent in 2006 to 9 percent in 2007 and projected 14 percent in 2008; also concern about lack of human factors research in the FAA’s NextGen ATC modernization program.
Patrick Forrey, head of NATCA, speaks next. He emphasizes the urgency of air traffic controller attrition and retirement. “This country is facing an air traffic control staffing crisis” leading to “an unacceptable compromise in safety.” FAA is mislabeling its imposed work rules as a contract. In 2007, controller attrition was 70 percent higher than the FAA projected, in part because of its recalcitrance on meeting NATCA’s contract demands. Delays have increased since the work rules were imposed in 2006, and to Forrey, “this is no coincidence.” NATCA’s recommendation: (1) “FAA and NATCA must return to bargaining table.” Retention is essential to safety. (2) FAA must work with NATCA to establish “scientifically based” staffing arrangements at ATC facilities. (3) Standardized training needed. (4) FAA must work “collaboratively and cooperatively” with NATCA to resolve these issues.
The video cuts out here, so I miss Dan Conley of the FAA Managers Association and the first bit of questioning.
Note: Passages below are paraphrases. Direct quotations are so specified.
Costello to Krakowski: How concerned are you about fatigue?
Krakowski: Of sixteen runway incursion, only six are due to controller error. FAA is leading the way in studying how fatigue affects controllers with its fatigue summit.
Costello: Retirement levels are above projections. Why?
Krakowski: Update on numbers: we’ve missed projections over past couple years by about 125 controllers; by this point in June, we’ve only had ten controllers more retire than projected thus far. “I won’t deny that the labor atmosphere has something to do with it.”
After a question by Petri about “parochial” ATC restructuring in Milwaukee, a dispute opens between Krakowski and Forrey. Krakowski said the restructuring went fine; Forrey disputed it. Forrey says that the controllers’ workload is very high. “Indicative of what’s going across the country.”
Laura Richardson (D-Calif.): Do you have staffing level standards for each facility?
Krakowski: Not yet.
Richardson: What about the problem of lack of incentives for seasoned controllers to move to more challenging, busier facilities?
Krakowski: We’re reversing those disincentives with relocation bonuses.
Ted Poe (R-Texas): Errors are up over 200 percent at the TRACON near Houston, deviations up over 90 percent. Staffing shortages at Houston TRACON persist. FAA is persistently wrong about projections of staffing. “When is mandatory overtime going to stop?”
Krakowski: “Each year we’re adding more controllers. . . . We’re actually growing the controller workforce.”
Poe: Are you concerned about safety by cutting down training time?
Krakowski: New simulators are very effective and helpful.
Poe: “Do you agree that morale is worse?”
Krakowski: “Not changed measurable since I’ve been on the job.”
Forrey: “It’s getting worse.” New personnel are trainees, not certified controllers. Simulators only work for 25 percent of workforce: tower-based controllers, not radar-center controllers.
Poe: Why are controllers retiring?
Forrey: “Because they don’t have a contract.”
Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii, looking lovely today): What are you doing to retain employees?
Krakowski: Retention bonuses for those who are eligible for retirement.
Hirono: Any intention of FAA returning to negotiations?
Krakowski: “We forwarded a settlement to NATCA this week.”
Forrey: “Proposal that the FAA gave is nothing more than they did last time.” DOT IG says that FAA should work with NATCA, but NATCA doesn’t get contacted.”
Hirono: I’m waiting for a breakthrough. Fundamental issue is willingness on both sides to negotiate. “That’s just an expression of frustration on my part.”
Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) to Scovel and Dillingham: Please declare a truce between FAA and NATCA, both guilty of “rhetorical overkill.” Morale is the most significant problem. FAA refuses to address the staffing problem “head on.”
Scovel: “It’s a significant morale problem.” Top of the list of controllers’ complaints.
Dillingham: “Enough blame to go around on both sides.” Too little conversation between both parties. We hope the seriousness of the issue will push the parties to work together before we have an aviation disaster.
Forrey: We’re ready to go back to the table. We didn’t have these retention problems when we had a contract. They began under work rules.
Hayes ends his remarks with “let’s get ‘r done.” Oh, please.
Costello: the source of the impasse is the White House and the Office of Management and Budget.
Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon): Name two steps to fix the problems.
Krakowski: Make it more attractive for retirement-eligible controllers not to retire and pursue new technologies for training.
Scovel: Echo Krakowski, and emphasize facility training.
Dillingham: Stop the exodus of experienced controllers and developmental controllers.
Forrey: Go back to negotiating table for new contract and staff the system.
Conley: “Both sides are in love with the past.” Resolve labor disputes.
DeFazio: Let’s talk about developmental controllers.
Forrey: Pay for developmental controllers is less than it was.
Video skips out again and I miss Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.).
John Hall (D-N.Y.): What about treatment of labor?
Krakowski: We have more than twenty unions at the FAA; NATCA’s the big dog there but we want to treat them all equally.
Hall: “Equally unfairly” [smirk]
Costello dismisses the first panel and recesses the subcommittee for a fifteen-minute recess for votes on the House floor.
The hearing resumes with three air traffic controllers and facility representatives. Don Chapman represents the tower/TRACON facility at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). “Many facilities are dangerous,” he says, due to low staffing. Combined facilities like the one at PHL have system’s lowest error rates. Traditionally, busy facilities have recruited experienced controllers from less-dense facilities; now, trainees are routinely hired at centers like PHL. FAA has announced plans to separate tower and TRACON at PHL and several other airports, which will require more controllers. He refers to it obliquely as a public image shuffling that will not solve operational problems. A kicker: “While controller staffing levels remain inadequate, management positions have increased.” Fatigue is a major issue, and training new controllers can be a big cause of fatigue while experienced controllers also perform their own duties.
Steven A. Wallace, representative of the Miami center, spoke about the staffing shortages at his center and the accompanying rise in errors. FAA has “cut” the number of errors by relabeling some incidences with planes close together as “proximity incidents” and then not counting them. With fewer controllers to help control aircraft, there are much narrower margins for error; consequently, stress is huge. The FAA’s self-described “better management” means an ever-bigger workload for controllers. With no better outlook on the horizon, controllers who can retire are choosing to do so. Developmental controllers’ “pay has been cut by 30 percent.” In addition to unexpected attrition, the FAA has increased the number of supervisors. “The number of chiefs has grown proportionally with the number of errors.”
The final speaker is Melvin S. Davis, a controller from the Southern California TRACON. “The FAA will tell you that staffing does not affect safety, and that is simply untrue.” Developmental controllers are making mistakes, but with more of them in facilities than before and with fewer veteran controllers, there’s no one to catch their errors. “These mistakes will eventually result in a catastrophe.” The FAA “continues to ask us to do more with less.” More and more controllers are seeking psychiatric care and will never work with managing airplanes again. “What will it take to wake [the FAA] up?”
Costello: What are the two main reason for controllers’ departures?
Davis: Fatigue — “the main reason.”
Costello: Why are new hires leaving so soon?
Davis: You used to see huge attrition at the academy. Now they get pushed through the academy more easily, and now it’s happening at the facility — where it’s more dangerous. But it’s the same level of attrition.
Wallace: The main reasons are low pay and poor working conditions.
Chapman: “The FAA has turned air traffic control from a career occupation . . . into an uncertain occupation. It’s like working at 7/11 or McDonald’s.”
Costello: Is it true that developmental controllers are out working second jobs?
Chapman: Yes, and even more will jump out of ATC if working conditions aren’t improved in the next couple years.
Wallace: “They’re committed enough [to the FAA] to go out and get a second job to try to make it work.”
The hearing continued with questions from Rep. Petri and others, but I have somewhere else to be, so that wraps up this post.