NATCA Responds to the FAA

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NATCA President John Carr held a conference call Thursday afternoon (June 2, 2005) with reporters to discuss the FAA's report on the New York TRACON. This is the text of his opening statement, provided to AVweb by NATCA.

Good afternoon everyone and thanks for joining this call. As Doug mentioned, my name is John Carr, President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. And just to clarify, although the FAA [news conference] event happened probably was an hour or two ago, we just got our hands on the [FAA] report [on the New York TRACON] literally about ten minutes ago. So I haven't really had an opportunity to parse through it chapter and verse. But what I have seen deeply troubles me.

The FAA had a golden opportunity to address what we view are serious management and staffing problems that are affecting the New York TRACON. Sadly, they have failed to accomplish that and once again sort of resorted to scapegoating.

The time in our opinion has long passed for the FAA to at least acknowledge that the problems in the New York area are real and that they have very important safety implications for the traveling public. The problems in New York are the result of a fairly simple equation there are more flights, there are fewer air traffic controllers and there is an increasingly reduced margin of safety.

The New York TRACON handles three of the busiest airports in the world; I don't need to tell you that. This year they've handled a record number of operations.

Air traffic is up five percent this year over last and yet the TRACON is only staffed at approximately 76 percent of its authorized staffing to complement. And more staff have been lost this year. Air traffic controllers at the NY TRACON work mandatory six day work weeks and in fact, in the report it even mentions controllers being tasked with working overtime 51 of an available 52 weeks. It's completely disingenuous for the FAA to short-staff the facility, demand a six day work week out of the work force and then complain about the cost of the overtime.

Operational errors in the facility are up, and the FAA themselves are forecasting air traffic in the New York area is going to rise.

And again, we believe the FAA missed a golden opportunity in the area of operational error reporting. They encourage the reporting of operational errors, and yet when the controllers report the errors which are a precursor of a more serious event, the FAA basically says, "Yes, that's our standard, but we've voluntarily allowed it to be broken. There was no risk of collision and no near miss."

The standard is not a risk of collision or a near miss. The standard was created to allow for a margin of safety that we see as being reduced. We believe the flying public's safety is at stake and [that] is the reason why we continue to attempt to engage in productive dialogue. We continue to try to bring forward what we perceive as serious safety-related problems.

New York's air traffic control force is ready to work productively and openly with the FAA to identify solutions that ensure the safety of the flying public in this facility. If they are serious about fixing the problem, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association is here to help. We cannot help when our representative to their press conference today is thrown out. We cannot help when they're looking to assign blame and move on. We cannot help when they don't include us in the search for solutions. From our perspective, it's unfortunate.

I don't believe the scapegoating that is contained in that report will add a single controller to the New York TRACON. I don't believe it's going to help the working environment. I don't believe it will reduce the trauma that's unique in this occupation about airplane incidence. I don't believe it will increase safety in the world's busiest airspace. There are too many airplanes, and there are too few people; and that's going to lead to a safety problem.

The FAA has mismanaged this facility. That much is clear from this report. They are basically conceding that they mismanaged the overtime, sick leave, the workman's compensation, and in response to that mismanagement they decided to make the temporary manager permanent. That's pathetic and sad, to be perfectly honest with you. What this report points out is a lack of management oversight and a lack of stewardship of our nation's airspace.

The FAA has created this chaos by their own hand.

They have understaffed the facility. The FAA sets the staffing number, and they are currently staffing that facility at 76 percent of their own number. The FAA mandates six-day work weeks. The FAA is the one who has set the standards for staffing. The standards for safety. The standards for sick leave. For overtime, for pay and compensation, and for scheduling. And it is by their own hand that this has come to pass.

The margin of safety is being eroded. I mean, quite frankly, I'm very distressed to see that they don't have a new standard. They called them compression errors when there's no risk of collusion, no pilot report of a near-miss. I'm curious to see what the FAA would say their new standards are, as I don't know what it might be.

I know what the old standard was. It was an operational error that controllers were encouraged to bring forward and report so that you could explore the precursors to a collusion. I'm not certain how the FAA's new standard for separation criteria is.

I do know that if you intend to cancel agreements made in good faith unilaterally, which I'm afraid says more about their integrity than we wanted to. And I know their response to management, supervision of sick leave, operational errors, and overtime is to make the management team the most wholly and responsible to that permanently.

So from our perspective it's an opportunity missed by an agency that has perfected the art of problem avoidance. It would probably be newsworthy if I was the only one who ever told you that the FAA was the only tombstone agency that didn't react until something horrific happened, but I'm not. I did not coin that phrase. I'm just left to deal with it.

I represent hardworking, dedicated public servants whose only job is the safe, orderly, and expeditious movement of air traffic through the New York metropolitan area. And to consider that character assassination of the work force is in some way designed to address the serious and systemic problems is deeply troubling and saddening to me.

To read the FAA's full 114-page report in PDF format, click here.