Federal officials announced Friday that they would assess the air traffic control staffing levels and their effects on safety at Los Angeles International Airport and two other key locations in California.
The action comes at the request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who contends that the nation’s control towers may be understaffed.
In addition to LAX, the Inspector General’s Office of the U.S. Department of Transportation will audit the staffing and experience levels of controllers at operations in Southern and Northern California that guide aircraft between airports.
Based in San Diego and Sacramento, the terminal radar approach controls, or TRACONs, rely on hundreds of controllers.
The three systems are facing reductions and potential shortages of experienced personnel due to a wave of retirements that has been accelerating in recent years.
“We must do all that we can to ensure that the skies over California are safe,” Feinstein said. “Unfortunately, we are losing large numbers of air traffic controllers to retirement, and I’m very concerned that the Federal Aviation Administration is falling behind on filling these vacancies with properly trained and certified replacements.”
FAA officials acknowledged that the agency is experiencing an unprecedented number of retirements as controllers hired in the early 1980s leave the profession. They replaced about 11,000 controllers fired by the Reagan administration after 17,500 union members walked off the job amid contract negotiations.
According to FAA projections, at least 7,896 of the agency’s roughly 14,800 air traffic controllers are expected to retire by 2017. Several thousand more will become eligible for retirement.
“We’ve known that we will lose most of our experienced air traffic controllers in the decades ahead, and we’ve been preparing for it,” said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman.
He said the agency plans to hire more than 1,800 controllers nationwide this year, roughly the same number brought on last year. He added that the FAA hired about 1,100 controllers in 2006.
“It is a challenge to replace the thousands of air traffic controllers that are leaving,” Gregor said, “but it is a challenge we are meeting.”
The most recent FAA statistics show that LAX, one of the busiest airports in the nation, has 43 air traffic controllers, a number within the authorized staffing range of 39 to 47. Thirty-seven are fully certified for the airport. Two are previously certified controllers training to work at LAX and four are trainees with no previous FAA experience.
According to the FAA, the Southern California TRACON has 224 controllers, of which 162 are fully certified, 17 are certified but training to work at the TRACON, and 45 are trainees with no previous FAA experience. The authorized staffing level is between 194 and 237 controllers.
The Northern California TRACON has 157 controllers, including 132 who are fully certified, eight certified controllers training to work at the operation, and 17 trainees without previous FAA experience. The authorized staffing level is between 142 and 174.
Feinstein said she became concerned about air traffic control after hearing congressional testimony and media reports about controller errors attributed to staff reductions. She said it is not clear whether the FAA has an adequate plan to replace the thousands of controllers expected to retire in the years ahead.
A few months ago, the FAA began offering bonuses of up to $25,000 to encourage retirement-eligible air traffic controllers to stay in their jobs longer. Bonuses of up to $20,000 were offered to controllers willing to transfer to centers that expected to have a high number of retirements.
Though FAA rules state that trainees can be included in the authorized staffing levels, Feinstein’s office disputes whether they should be counted. When they are factored out, staffing falls at or below minimum authorized levels.
“The FAA continues to assert that staffing is adequate and that safety isn’t compromised,” said Philip J. LaVelle, Feinstein’s press secretary. “And yet, veteran controllers say that staffing is an issue. This is the whole point of having the inspector general look at this: to provide facts we need to ensure that the skies above California are safe.”
Officials with the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. -- which represents more than 20,000 air traffic controllers, engineers and other safety related professionals -- said the audit involves what they consider to be the three most understaffed facilities in California, with the worst being the Southern California TRACON, the busiest such facility in the nation.
Overall, association officials say, the loss of air traffic controllers has left the country with 11,077 fully certified and trained personnel, the lowest level in 15 years.
“This is extremely important,” said Mike Foote, an LAX controller and local representative of the controllers association. “We feel that the FAA has been playing fast and loose with the facts. If we aren’t understaffed at LAX, why do we have three to five people working overtime every day? Even then, we still run short.”
In January, air traffic controllers at the Northern California TRACON and the Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center declared a staffing emergency and called on the federal government to act immediately to stem the loss of veteran controllers.
It was the sixth area of the country where the association had taken such action. Southern California was among the regions.
The FAA’s Gregor said the controllers union has been trying to put pressure on the agency to resume labor negotiations that broke down in 2006.
“This is typical NATCA hyperbole,” he said. “The union leadership is engaging in this nationwide for political purposes.”