Controller Union Blames Separation Errors On Poor Training; FAA Says Training OK

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The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is blaming poor controller training practices for a March 13 incident in which a Boeing 737 and an Embraer regional jet did not have adequate separation while on approach to Chicago's Midway Airport. But the FAA says the current training regime is an improvement over old methods. According to a NATCA spokesman, a controller trainee was working both aircraft at the time of the incident. In an e-mail response to AVweb from an FAA spokeswoman, the March 13 incident was classified as a Level C controller error—meaning that 75 to 89 percent of the safety margin between the aircraft was in place when the event occurred. "Since the error occurred while the planes were flying away from each other, no accident was possible," the FAA said. An FAA fact sheet on controller errors states that during fiscal year 2007 at U.S. airports, 844 controller errors took place involving airborne planes. Of those, 95.9 percent were Level B or Level C incursions, meaning that between 35 and 89 percent of the safety margin between the aircraft was in place at the moment of closest proximity.

"I think we are headed down a dangerous path of certifying individuals to be controllers before they are truly ready," said Jeffrey Richards, NATCA's Chicago Center facility representative. Richards argues that functional training—wherein a controller learns a new position while continuing to work shifts in the old position—offers trainees "no time to perfect the skills they have learned. This creates a situation in which the trainee could be certified at a position and then not see that position for months afterwards." But according to the FAA, functional training is an improvement on old methods "because it pushes more classroom and simulator training to the front end of the process, eliminates redundancies, and reduces waiting time for classes and simulator training. It allows for more continuous training instead of dealing with numerous stops and starts of training over long month to month periods." According to the FAA, there are 353 certified controllers at Chicago Center with 70 currently in various phases of training.