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Mon, Oct 08, 2007

NATCA Claims Staffing Woes Behind 'Close Call' Near Las Vegas

Descending Aircraft Comes Within Three Miles Of Bizjet At FL280

Was it truly a "close call"... and why did it happen? The National Air Traffic Controllers Association told ANN Friday of an incident in the skies over Nevada Thursday, in which an aircraft descending through 28,000 feet came within 2.6 miles of a second plane on converging flight paths.

Both aircraft were being vectored for spacing into McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas just after 1300 local time Thursday, during an especially busy time for the airport, according to the controllers union. The two planes -- a Citation 750 and a LearJet 60 -- were under the control of the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center.

NATCA says the planes would have come even closer... had the pilots not responded to TCAS warnings, and a controller had not vectored the planes away from each other.

The union tells ANN the situation is "an unfortunate example of what happens in an overstressed, overworked, understaffed situation, which happens routinely."

"This is another example of the Federal Aviation Administration trying to do too much with too little," said Los Angeles Center NATCA Facility Representative Garth Koleszar. "A controller returning to the work area had to take action on his own to assist the controller who was yelling for help. Unfortunately, he was too late and the traffic complexity had already reached extreme levels. The controller jumping in to help didn’t even have time to receive a briefing on the sector traffic situations prior to the error. The FAA supervisor had left the work area moments before and had neglected to provide the controller with the needed help.

"This controller was left to work at above the sector volume at extremely complex levels by himself," he said. “Anytime there is sequencing due to high airport traffic demand, a controller’s work load goes up exponentially.”

Aero-News has reported extensively on the contentious state of affairs between NATCA and the FAA, particularly since contract talks broke down between the two sides last year. The FAA imposed its own contract in June 2006, after the agency declared talks to be at an impasse.

With that in mind, is this incident an ominous sign of looming problems... or an attempt by NATCA to attract further attention to its cause? It probably isn't surprising Ian Gregor, Western Region spokesman for the FAA, leans towards the latter.

"This controller error had absolutely nothing to do with staffing," Gregor tells ANN. "Indeed, the facts prove otherwise. The sector in which the error occurred was fully staffed, there was a routine number of aircraft in the sector when the controller made the mistake, and a supervisor was present.

"The simple truth is that even good controllers occasionally make mistakes," he added. "When they do, we have multiple layers of safety in place to protect the traveling public."

Gregor also takes issue with NATCA's claims of short staffing at control centers nationwide.

"We're fully aware that most of the current national controller workforce will retire within the next decade, and we're aggressively hiring new controllers to replace them," he said. "Currently, we have about 14,800 controllers nationwide, compared to about 14,600 a year ago. We met our hiring goal by bringing on board more than 1,700 new controllers during Fiscal Year 2007 (which ended Sept. 30), and we're having no trouble recruiting people for the positions."

NATCA's Koleszar asserts controllers have been forced to work increased traffic volumes, with fewer associates to lend a hand. "This is when mistakes happen," he said. "Sadly, controllers are leaving the FAA at an increasing rate because of the FAA’s treatment of its employees. It will get worse before it gets better."

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

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