June 18, 2008

At Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, 38 Percent of Flight Controllers Are in Training Programs

By Bryon Okada, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas

Jun. 18--D/FW AIRPORT -- Many of the flights in and out of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport are being monitored by newly hired air traffic controllers, some with little training or experience, according to a new federal study.

Nearly two of every five tower controllers at D/FW are trainees.

Only one other major airport -- New York LaGuardia Airport -- has a higher percentage, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. (The study, issued by the Government Accountability Office last week, also said Houston Hobby Airport had a higher percentage, but FAA officials said the airport has since added more certified controllers.)

FAA officials said the D/FW tower, with 62 percent certified controllers and 38 percent in some type of training, had an acceptable mix and posed no safety problem. But the GAO report says controller fatigue can be an increased hazard with a high percentage of trainees. And the National Air Traffic Controllers Association believes the controller workforce may get even more inexperienced in the next few years due to mass retirements.

Once upon a time, D/FW tower was considered a premier stop for an experienced controller, said Ric Loewen, D/FW tower's facility representative for the union.

These days, however, D/FW is just as often a training ground, something that was more typical of control towers at much smaller airports, Loewen said.

"This was my fourth facility," Loewen said. "Now we have people here and it's their second facility. For a few people it's their first, and they have no aviation background."

What happened before

A decade-long mass retirement of controllers is under way because many who were hired at the same time -- after President Reagan's 1981 mass firing of more than 11,500 striking controllers -- reached retirement eligibility at the same time. A projected 15,000 air traffic controllers are expected to leave the FAA between 2008 and 2017.

Compounding the retirements is increasing animosity between the air traffic controllers union and the FAA during the Bush administration, including a 2006 contract that many controllers perceive to be unfair and forced upon them.

From 2002 to 2005, the FAA hired 467 new controllers a year. That increased to 1,116 hires in 2006 and 1,815 hires in 2007, the study said.

That pace of replacement has been and continues to be too slow, union officials contend.

What GAO found

The GAO reported on the FAA's progress in hiring, staffing and training controllers to replace the retiring ones -- both in terms of current technology and in preparations of the next-generation air traffic control system. The GAO found that the FAA's efforts are "generally on track."

However, the GAO says control towers with an increased number of trainees, including D/FW, present two significant challenges: Experienced controllers may not be able to focus as much on their own duties because they are monitoring trainees, and stress and fatigue levels are increased in an already stressful environment.

"Fort Worth is emblematic of what the GAO is reporting," NATCA spokesman Doug Church said.

More data

The FAA's staffing numbers don't fully match the GAO's, but they're pretty close when it comes to D/FW and they show essentially the same picture.

The GAO reported that 37 of D/FW's 60 controllers were certified. The FAA numbers show 36 certified controllers among the 58 on board. In either case, it's 62 percent.

However, "D/FW is a little more complex," FAA spokesman Roland Herwig said. "We have 14 [certified professional controllers] in training that are part of the 58 but not part of the 36." Many experienced controllers need to be trained to work the air traffic technology of the future.

While Herwig said he does not challenge the GAO figures, the report is merely a snapshot in time, he said.

In a separate June report, NATCA looked at staffing in the Fort Worth Air Route Traffic Control Center, which covers portions of five states. The report found that there were 254 fully certified professional controllers and 76 developmentals. The 23-percent developmental about matches the national average. However, in April 2003 there were 313 certified controllers and 32 developmentals. That means the percentage of developmentals at Fort Worth center rose from 9 percent to 23 percent in a little more than five years.

Is it too late to fix this?

FAA officials say the hiring of new controllers is under way.

"We have challenges, but it's getting done," Herwig said.

The union says it's going too slowly. "It's almost too late," Church said. "It's like trying to say there's a hurricane when the eye wall is already on shore."

The union is asking for a collective bargaining agreement.

GAO report To read the GAO report, go to www.gao.gov and search for report GAO-08-908T.


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