June 21, 2008

Audit to Look at LAX Air Traffic Staff

By Art Marroquin

The U.S. Department of Transportation will launch an audit to determine whether there's a shortage of air traffic controllers at Los Angeles International Airport and two radar control facilities in California, officials announced Friday.

The DOT agreed to conduct the study after Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called for an examination of staffing levels and training measures at LAX, the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control facility in San Diego and the Northern California Terminal Radar Approach Control Center in Sacramento.

"We must do all that we can to ensure that the skies over California are safe," Feinstein said. "California has some of the busiest airspace in the world, and it's critical that our air traffic is closely monitored and staffed sufficiently."

The staffing shortage is partially fueled by the anticipated retirement of more than 2,000 air traffic controllers by the end of this year, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to aggressively hire replacements.

"Unfortunately, we are losing large numbers of air traffic controllers to retirement, and I'm very concerned that the FAA is falling behind on filling in these vacancies with properly trained and certified replacements," Feinstein said.

To keep up with retirements, the FAA hired more than 1,100 new controllers in 2006 and another 1,850 last year. The agency plans to hire close to 1,900 new controllers nationwide by the end of the year.

To expedite the hiring process, the FAA has held a series of one- stop, daylong interviews across the country for potential controllers.

Applicants who pass the aptitude test are called back for an interview, a background check and medical, psychological and drug tests. Afterward, they are given a tentative date to report for training in Oklahoma City.

About 170 applicants attended such a session this week in Los Angeles, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.

"We've known for some time that we're going to lose most of our air traffic controller work force to retirements over the next decade and we've had a comprehensive and effective plan in place to bring in and train new controllers," Gregor said.

The Southern California TRACON facility in San Diego is staffed with 224 controllers, 162 of whom were fully certified at that facility, according to FAA figures. However, 172 of those controllers were certified elsewhere and are still undergoing training, while another 45 "developmental" trainees are also learning the ropes.

Southern California TRACON is considered to be "fully staffed" under the FAA's approved range of 194 to 237 controllers.

But those numbers are considered to be unacceptable by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing some 14,800 controllers nationwide.

Southern California TRACON "has one of the worst staffing levels in the nation," said NATCA spokesman Doug Church.

Church argued that at least 261 controllers should be working at the radar facility, which oversees flights from Ventura County to the Mexican border.

"It's a wholly unrealistic thing to say that it's fully staffed when you have controllers working overtime, sometimes six day a week," Church said.

LAX is staffed with 43 air traffic controllers, 37 of whom were fully certified at the airport, according to the FAA. Two of the controllers were certified at other airports and are undergoing training at LAX, along with four developmental trainees.

The FAA has determined that LAX Tower should be staffed with 39 to 47 controllers, but Church said more are needed there, too.

"That's an extremely busy facility that needs more eyes watching the runway," Church said. "We're looking forward to this audit getting going and getting some recommendations so we can take some steps to improving the situation."

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles City Council adopted a resolution calling on the FAA to hire more controllers at LAX.

The city has no say in hiring controllers, but officials have said they were concerned about a congressional report released last year that found a "high risk" of close calls among aircraft maneuvering on the ground at the nation's airports, including LAX.

"I would like to see 47 fully trained, fully experienced controllers working in the LAX Tower," said Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose 11th District includes LAX.

"Forty-seven is full staffing as far as I am concerned, and that is what the controllers tell me that they need up there," he said. "Safety is our No. 1 concern."

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