NATCA: Controllers Inexperienced, Fatigued, Passengers At Risk

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The National Air Traffic Controllers Association Thursday held a news conference and declared a staffing emergency, stating that controllers "do not have enough trained and experienced personnel on the ground to safely handle the volume of traffic" to work Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Southern California airspace. Faced with the statement that the situation is "dangerous and about to get worse," AVweb asked NATCA president Patrick Forrey if the immediate threat to public safety would prompt NATCA to reduce the volume of traffic at any of these facilities in order to safeguard passengers. Forrey responded, "I don't know, but I call upon the FAA to take the appropriate measures to do their damn job."

Click here to listen to excerpts of NATCA President Patrick Forrey speaking with reporters during NATCA's teleconference Thursday.

Resolution, according to NATCA, would (in part) begin with reopening FAA/NATCA contract negotiations to improve morale and create financial incentives to stem the tide of attrition and retirements. Forrey said well over 1300 aircraft-handling controllers were lost to attrition last year (his estimate was 1600, total, including at least 800 lost to retirement) and those were replaced with 40 new hires who trained and gained certification last year. With 1800 new-hire controller trainees in the system and only 40 certified last year, Forrey says 500 trainees have already washed out of the training program and it will take time for the rest to be able to fill the shoes of the 1600 experienced controllers already lost and 2200 more currently eligible to retire. Of those trainees who've made it through, "They're getting people as new hires working at Newark that are coming from McDonald's and, uh, actually no experience at all, and they're sticking them into one of the busiest towers in the world. These people have no clue what a 737 is compared to a DC-10." He added, "I can give you names."

Speaking of the 2200 veteran controllers now able to retire, Forrey said he believes that if they leave before summer, the system will fall into "chaos." That would be worse than the current situation described by Forrey in which "The ability to separate traffic safely has gone to an all-time low." Forrey cited poor labor relations, the lack of a contract and working under imposed work rules as contributing factors leading to extremely low morale and high attrition rates among both trainees and qualified controllers. Forrey's position is that attrition rates cannot be curbed at this point by trainees that need four to five years' experience to be sufficiently well-versed. As it sits, Forrey says he does not feel comfortable flying into the nation's busiest airports being guided by overworked, potentially inexperienced controllers working at understaffed facilities.