...FAA Offers General Comments

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FAA chief spokesman Greg Martin said the letter contained "troubling charges" but declined to comment on specific allegations. He did say many of the more general observations are well-known to the agency. He noted that in House testimony in June, the agency reported that air traffic controllers used more than 100 percent of their sick leave and the FAA has set a goal of reducing sick time by 8 percent (air purifiers, maybe). Martin said that's all part of the emphasis on productivity and performance that is in effect at the agency. "Our intent is to keep our system the safest in the world but also to invest taxpayers' money in the best ways possible," he said. Martin hinted there could be some fireworks ahead as the agency demands more productivity from employees. "We're being asked to do more and do it more smartly," he said. "When those tough decisions are made, our organization has to believe it has support at the highest level." Among the controversial programs being proposed is a computer system called CRU-X that monitors just how much time each controller spends working aircraft.

The following is the text of the anonymous letter sent to AVweb. It has been edited only to further protect the identity of its author:

I am a Federal Aviation Administration Air Traffic Controller assigned to a moderately busy, international air traffic control tower.  I read your report on FAA controller staffing.  I feel I must comment on the accuracy of the report.

I have been an air traffic controller for more than 20 years.  I have worked at several control towers.

I disagree that air traffic control staffing is too low. At my present facility, my last facility and the facility before that, no air traffic controller was being overworked. In reality, air traffic controllers spend about four hours of an eight-hour shift actually working position. The other four hours are spent on break. Not a bad deal for someone making $40.00 an hour. You could ask the FAA for the "time on position" records for the air traffic controller workforce.  I think what you will find is the en route centers and the really busy airports are the only facilities with any situation that resembles a staffing shortage.  At the small facilities and most large facilities, there isn't any staffing shortage. When you read about the controllers' union being against the software program CRU-X, it is because CRU-X will document how much an air traffic controller actually spent working and how much he/she spent on break.

At my facility, all air traffic controllers are able to use every bit of the annual vacation time (5 1/2 weeks yearly). At my facility, air traffic controllers are allowed to "call in sick" any time they feel the need and are never asked to provide a doctor's note saying they were actually sick. Each controller is provided 2 1/2 weeks of sick leave yearly.  It would be common for a controller to call in sick after he/she was not granted a vacation day. And the FAA doesn't do anything about it.

My facility has almost 20 different control positions. Yet, even on the busiest day, only 11 positions are opened. There are many times when there are more air traffic controllers on break than air traffic controllers working. Instead of opening positions, lowering controller workload and providing quality service, control positions are combined so controllers can get more break time. You should ask the FAA how many control positions are combined daily and why they were not opened.

In addition, most facilities allow the union's principal facility representative administrative time to conduct union business. The taxpayer/FAA pays the union representative's salary even though he/she doesn't have to work air traffic. If you consider how many union representatives there are, at least one at every FAA air traffic control facility, the total money spent paying controllers for not working is huge.

The controllers' union is staffed with very smart individuals. But these individuals do not have the best interest of the FAA in mind when they negotiate work rules. FAA managers have bargained away a lot of their management rights and the union isn't about to give them back.

It takes a lot of time to train air traffic controllers but not necessarily because of the complexity of the job. We have a student that has been in training for six years. Between the union and the student's lawyers, the controller has been given another chance. The union is almost always successful in the defense of controllers who fail the training program. The union will build a compelling case how the FAA failed to properly train a controller and get the student reinstated in training. Now, it is union members that actually train controllers. FAA management doesn't provide any of the on-the-job training. Plus, student controllers can call in sick without risk of disciplinary action and are also entitled to their vacation time. At my facility, the highest-paid personnel are student controllers. We have one student controller who, while working live traffic, has had two near misses/losses of separation. These incidents occurred within a few months.  Instead of firing the individual or assigning him to a slower facility, he is retained and given another chance.

Drug Use. At my facility alone, three air traffic controllers have, over the recent years, tested positive for illegal drug use.  Now any other employer would fire them. Not the FAA. At the FAA, when you test positive for drug use, you are protected. The FAA will not tell anyone that you are using illegal drugs. You will be retained. They will not fire you. You will get all the pay raises you would have otherwise gotten. And, instead of working air traffic, the FAA will find some "no brainer" task for you to do over the year your medical clearance is suspended.

At my airport, the FAA controllers are the only employees not in jeopardy of losing their jobs or having their pay cut. While this nation's airlines are going bankrupt, air traffic controllers are enjoying large salaries, pay raises, lots of vacation time and few demands at work.

My facility has a higher than average number of near misses due to controller error.  When local FAA management tried to correct the problem by opening more control positions, the controllers' union successfully prevented that action. My facility has an award program that gives each controller a four-hour time-off award when the facility goes six months without a near miss. We have not received that award in a couple of years because we have so many errors. The only safety step the controllers' union allowed local FAA management to implement was banning the use of cellphones while controllers are working live traffic. In reality, that order isn't even enforced. Controllers will often answer their cellphones while working air traffic. In fact, it is common for air controllers to read books and magazines while working position and to tackle the crossword puzzle while working live traffic. Most of the near misses we have are when controllers are performing controller-in-charge duties.

We had a near miss once when the weather was so bad, no planes could land at the airport. There where 14 controllers on duty but only four were working. The controller who had the near miss was busy putting planes in holding patterns and issuing new clearances to divert airports. The controller in charge was not paying attention. This error could have been prevented by putting to work all the controllers on duty. Instead, 10 controllers are watching television while four controllers are busy.

The controllers' union negotiated schedule changes/swaps that allow controllers to ask to work a different shift than assigned. This policy, no matter how well-intentioned, creates shift staffing imbalances. Most controllers do not like working night shifts. My facility allows controllers to change from the night shift to a day shift as long as the basic minimum staff remains behind to work the night shift. Then, like clockwork, a few people will call in sick on the night shift. The result is, twice the required staffing on the day shift and the night shift is understaffed.  This happens so much that FAA management will not pay overtime to build up staffing on the now short night shift. This is common.

Controllers are arrogant.  I have witnessed controllers demeaning supervisors, managers and staff specialists with no disciplinary action results.  Present-day working conditions, the rude and arrogant attitudes of the controller workforce remind me how it was on the eve of the PATCO controller strike. Today, only FAA management treats employees with kindness. Controllers generally dislike authority and with the union protecting them, show little respect for management or other controllers.

I think you would be shocked how controllers dress for work. Flip flops, shorts, and tee-shirts are the dress of most days.

I think the union does a great job of projecting an image of caring air traffic controllers worried only about air safety. In reality, I don't think safety is a huge concern. The union is opposed to opening control positions even when people are sitting around with nothing to do. I think the unions is more about  protecting the rights of controllers that use drugs, protecting controllers that call in sick when the cannot get the day off, and getting every controller more money.

At my facility, controller base pay is between $87,000.00 and $106,000.00. Controllers are paid extra if they have to work after 6 p.m. to train another controller or perform controller-in-charge duties. On average, controllers can boost their annual salaries 15 percent by training other controllers, working after 6 p.m. and working on Sunday and holidays.

I will respond to any e-mail request from you or your organization. I cannot tell you my name because if the controller's union found out, I would be in big trouble. I think it is about time the pubic and the taxpayers learned what is happening to their air traffic control system.