NATCA: Strain Showing At SoCal TRACON

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The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) says there have been five operational errors in less than two weeks at the nation's busiest terminal radar control (TRACON) center in San Diego, and it blames a punishing work schedule and gross understaffing. Spokesman Steve Merlin said in a news release that there are sometimes fewer than half what the union considers the minimum number of fully qualified controllers on position at any one time and virtually all of them are training a new controller at the same time. "We are running shifts that used to be staffed with 11 or 12 fully certified controllers (CPCs) with six or seven CPCs," Merlin said. "On August 4, the Empire Area was forced to work the day shift with four CPCs when 11 was the norm. Plus, we're forced to train new hires on top of that." He said management instituted a three-day training ban last week to try and get a grip on the situation. FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the spate of errors was an anomaly in an exceptionally safe year at the TRACON. To that point, he said, there had only been nine errors in the previous nine months so the sudden spike in errors warranted a stand down of training. "It was only prudent to do that," he said. Merlin said TRACON controllers have been on a mandatory six-day workweek for several months that's compounded by a shuffling of shifts that has destroyed the regular routine. Complicating the situation was the absorption of the airspace previously covered by the Palm Springs TRACON, which was closed in a cost-saving move a couple of months ago. Several veteran controllers are undergoing training to cover that sector, further depleting the number of available certified staff. Merlin says the FAA is compounding the staff shortage by hiring veteran controllers as supervisors. He claims they are 80 certified controllers short of full staffing. Gregor said the union is using outdated numbers. The recently revised staffing level for the TRACON calls for between 186 and 225 controllers and there are 194 there.