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Fri, Feb 15, 2008

FAA's Decision To Add To MKE Controllers' Duties Brings Congressional Ire

NATCA Maintains Facility Is Already Understaffed

There's evidence the National Air Traffic Controllers Association is gaining political traction in its frequent, public allegations the FAA is understaffing air traffic control facilities.

The union was influential recently in blocking US Senate confirmation of Robert Sturgell as FAA Administrator. Now, a decision by the FAA to add responsibilities to controllers working the tower at Wisconsin's Mitchell International Airport, near Milwaukee, has brought pressure on the FAA from Wisconsin's congressional delegation, and a letter from Senators Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold.

At issue is the transfer of control of the Ripon Approach Control Area from Chicago Center -- which has overseen the sector for 30 years -- to Milwaukee, in order to free up space for a planned expansion at O'Hare International. Under the new plan, controllers at Milwaukee will handle Ripon airspace from ground level to 13,000 feet MSL, with Chicago continuing to monitor the space above that.

Paul Charapata, Milwaukee Chapter President for the controller's union, says MKE is already understaffed at 41 controllers. The FAA counters the normal staffing level there is 37 to 45, and will be at 53 within a few months -- still three less than the 56 controllers Charapata maintains are needed for the combined Milwaukee/Ripon airspace.

"This is an issue about safety and controller fatigue," Charapata said. "Controllers will be operating in air space that is unfamiliar to them."

FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said she is "very stunned that the union had gone to the media in an effort to scare the public," reports the Milwaukee Business Journal. "This is a very small air space that is being added. This is a perfectly safe operation."

Cory maintains controllers will handle, on average, five takeoffs or landings per hour in the expanded space -- which covers about 3,000 square miles, and -- notably to general aviation pilots -- includes the airspace over Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, and Appleton.

In a February 11 letter to FAA Acting Administrator Bobby Sturgell, Kohl and Feingold say they are concerned "about the increased challenges facing air traffic controllers at General Mitchell International Airport.

"We have heard from a growing number of constituents about mounting shortages of controllers as well as a lack of training for new controllers," the Senators write. "And while the current lack of trained controllers is a cause for concern, we believe an impending expansion of the Milwaukee air space could greatly exacerbate the situation and strain the system’s ability to ensure public safety."

An additional sore point in the region is a proposed ground radar facility in Green Bay, which controllers say is needed to improve their efficiency. The FAA says it is still looking for suitable land on which to build the radar.

FMI: www.faa.gov, www.natca.org, www.wispolitics.com

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