Controllers Say Chicago Airspace Safety Level "Unacceptable"
Understaffing, Rule Changes, Meigs Closure Cited...
Air traffic controllers say they can no longer keep the airspace around Chicago safe and have asked the NTSB to intervene. In a news release Wednesday, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) said chronic understaffing, rule changes and the extra burden of traffic from now-closed Meigs Field have pushed ATC staff and facilities too far. "The level of safety has diminished below an acceptable level," said Ray Gibbons, president of NATCA's Chicago chapter, who cited deteriorating conditions and staff morale for a rash of errors in recent weeks. Staffing is the most serious issue, say the controllers. NATCA wants 100 fully qualified controllers at the Chicago TRACON but there are only 73 of the 99 now on staff that are fully trained. The remainder are undergoing transition training but are otherwise qualified air traffic controllers. The controllers also cite a rule change by the FAA that prevents many airlines and all GA flights from taking part in a program that requires them to hold short of crossing runways to allow conflicting arrivals and departures at O'Hare. The new rules have cut capacity and created extra work for controllers, NATCA claims. And the early-morning destruction of Meigs on March 31 and the subsequent closure of the tower has shunted traffic to other facilities, notably Midway, which has had to handle 15 percent more traffic since the closure. NATCA President John Carr said the FAA must act immediately "to fix this rapidly deteriorating and critical problem."
...FAA Downplays Fears
FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said the agency is "doing the best we can to hire more controllers." She confirmed that 25 percent of the controllers in Chicago are undergoing training but said it's normal to have some controllers on staff that aren't fully capable. But Cory avoided directly commenting on the union's assertion that Chicago airspace is not safe. Instead, she commended controllers for their skills in keeping it so. "I think they're doing an excellent job," she said. On Tuesday, one sector of the TRACON became badly overloaded and it took about 20 minutes to restore normal operations, but Cory said separations were maintained. She also said the Washington office is reviewing the decision to curtail the Land and Hold Short program at O'Hare. Cory said she doesn't know the precise impact of the Meigs closure on Chicago area controllers, noting that the traffic could have dispersed to any of five or six airports in the area. NATCA's Church said the association has been pleading with the FAA to do something about the problems for months and issuing the press release was a last resort. Neither NATCA nor the FAA are commenting on whether a higher authority has become involved, but the FAA regional office in Chicago may have been hit by lightning Wednesday. Staff were sent home after the electrical system, computers and fire alarms began malfunctioning. "I think it's just one of those things that happens," offered Cory.