Are air traffic control towers understaffed?

February 4, 2009 6:13:22 PM PST
An Eyewitness News investigation reveals that air traffic control towers in New York and New Jersey may be dangerously understaffed. A wave of resignations and retirements means fewer eyes are watching the skies. And the FAA is scrambling to avoid a crisis.

The Investigators' Jim Hoffer has more.

In just two years, the number of air traffic controllers at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports has dropped by 19 percent. The FAA insists the towers are safely manned. Controllers say the shortage has increased the workload the stress, and the potential for a real disaster.

"These two aircraft were coming in," Air traffic controller Bill Ordon said. "[One] aircraft was turning into [the other]."

Ordon remembers watching two blips on his radar screen getting closer and closer.

"It was tight," he said. "It was the tightest I have ever seen two aircraft come together."

It was the day after Christmas, traditionally one of the busiest. Ordon says staffing at the New York Center, which directs planes at high altitudes, was understaffed by nearly half.

"It really was a skeleton crew, at best, for such a busy day," Ordon said. He recalls being totally overwhelmed and, at one point, requesting that all departures be stopped.

"Stop departures, I'm shutting off, I'm shutting you guys off," he recalled saying.

Minutes later, he was desperately trying to help another controller keep two large jets, flying at 400 miles per hour, from colliding as they closed within four miles of each other.

Controller I Audio: "United 7, stop the climb at 25, did you get that or not? There's traffic right out in front, a flyable at 260, headed right at you, sir."

Controller II Audio: "United 7, climb, maintain flight level 270. Traffic off your right wing, flight level 260 at two miles."

"Maybe 15-20 seconds before those two planes actually would have been together," Ordon said. "It was down to seconds."

The FAA blamed air traffic controllers for the close call. Internal reports filed by controllers on duty fault "high traffic" and "inadequate staffing."

The union says a shortage of air traffic controllers in New York and New Jersey has reached a crisis in which they can no longer safely handle the volume of aircraft on the busiest times. The FAA disputes this. But our investigation has found an increasing number of highly-skilled controllers either retiring early or simply quitting because of the escalating workload and stress.

Consider the tower at Kennedy International, where four years ago, 35 fully certified air traffic controllers directed planes. Today, despite a 20 percent increase in daily flights, there are just 24 controllers.

"I walked out the doors and I really didn't look back," former controller Roberta Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman and Anne Marie Sharpe were among New York's best young controllers, both with degrees in aeronautical science and both licensed commercial pilots.

We asked them what kind of stress they were under when they are behind the radar.

"It's difficult to describe," Zimmerman said. "It is an intense video game for eight hours a day where you can't lose."

They quit, in part, they claim, because understaffing required they spend more and more time hovered over their radar screens with few breaks.

"You are intensely focused, more than an hour, then it became one and a half, then two, then two and a half," Sharpe said. "To sit and be mentally exhausted like that for two hours will just knock you out for an entire day, let alone to take a 15 minute break and come back and do it again."

So we spoke with FAA vice president of operations Hank Krakowski, and asked him if there is a staffing crisis with air traffic control in the United States.

"We have some staffing issues," he responded. "And we are under some stress, I will not deny that."

The FAA admits to playing catch up with staffing. To speed up training of new controllers, the FAA is using new simulators that can cut months off training, which can take one to three years. By the end of this year, it hopes to have hired more than 2,000 controllers.

"Right now, we have more than enough candidates who want to be air traffic controllers who are working through the academy and are working through the training successfully," Kraksowski said.

But are they hiring them fast enough to replace those who are leaving, like Gregory Gilman, a veteran New York controller who decided to retire seven years before he needed to.

We asked him if he is seeing a crisis?

"Absolutely," he said. "A crisis now. How they can deal with that staffing issue, I don't know."

The FAA says it is aggressively hiring new controllers. The problem is that it can take up to three years to become fully certified.


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