Union Believes It’s Evidence Of Understaffing, Agency
The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Air
Traffic Controllers Association engaged in a strange war of words
last week following an incident Monday when a veteran radar
controller at Reno-Tahoe International Airport was transported to
an emergency room after reporting chest pains. Each side is
accusing the other for using the unfortunate incident to promote
their political agenda in the media.
In a press release issued late Tuesday, NATCA said the
controller suffered a heart attack after being forced Monday
afternoon to work alone in the radar room at the airport. According
to the release, the controller started to experience chest pains at
approximately 1740 local time and contacted the controllers in the
control tower. The controllers contacted paramedics and took
measures to accommodate the traffic he was handling at the
Airport spokesman Brian Kulpin said safety was maintained during
the incident and there was no disruption of service.
NATCA said normal staffing for the shift in the radar room is
three controllers, or two controllers plus one supervisor.
Reportedly since last fall, operations with only one controller
have occurred regularly due to staffing shortages.
"The FAA has left us in a position where we cannot provide the
level of service that Reno needs," said NATCA Reno Facility
Representative Rich Ferris.
The FAA cried foul to those claims Wednesday. FAA spokesman Ian
Gregor told The Associated Press the controller suffered a severe
bout of heartburn, not a heart attack as reported by NATCA.
“It's unfortunate that the controller union's leadership
didn't bother to check their facts and then used this gentleman's
medical misfortune to try to further their political goals,”
Gregor said Wednesday.
“They haul a guy out of here in an ambulance and it's
heartburn?” Ferris said, though he later amended his
description of the stricken worker's ailment to
“apparent” heart attack.
“They're playing a game,” he said of the FAA.
“The airport firefighters responded. He said he was having
chest pains. They treated him as a heart attack victim. He went to
the emergency room.”
“What struck this individual, it doesn't matter,”
Ferris said. “We just don't have enough people
NATCA reported staffing at Reno dropped to just 11 fully
certified controllers at the facility after one controller retired
this past week; and one less than that number when taking into
account the stricken controller. The association believes 27 is the
safest level of staffing for Reno. Including nine trainees on staff
or expected, they still calculate the facility has nine fewer
employees than what is needed.
Disputing NATCA claims of understaffing at Reno, Gregor
responded staffing is merely being adjusted for traffic levels.
“We normally staff only two radar positions during the
busiest times. We have always staffed to traffic and if there's
only enough traffic for one controller, it doesn't make sense to
have two controllers working the radar room,” he said.
“There have been absolutely no delays or safety issues in
or around Reno due to staffing levels,” Gregor added.
NATCA states the situation at Reno is just further evidence of
the severity of the situation in the entire FAA Air Traffic Control
workforce. Using Reno as an example, they say the percentage of
trainees in the Reno workforce will raise to 44 percent as of this
week and such a level, according to a Department of Transportation
Inspector General report released just two weeks ago, is well
beyond what an FAA facility can handle for effective training.
"The staffing here is to the point where we cannot train anybody
effectively because there is nobody left to train them - they're
all working because we are so short-staffed," Ferris said.
In response to the staffing shortage Ferris said the FAA has
decided it will soon close the radar room from 0000 to 0500 and
airspace will be transferred to Oakland Center, which would not
have the radar capability to "see" aircraft below 11,000 feet in
the mountainous terrain around Reno. Ferris said Oakland Center is
also critically understaffed in the association’s view.
Ian Gregor still believes NATCA is merely using the incident and
the resulting claims to promote its position in the ongoing
political battle over controller staffing nationwide.
“The controller union leadership is very good at
making dramatic, alarmist pronouncements, but not so good at
providing evidence to support their claims” he said.