Controller shortage grounds flights

July 21, 2008 4:36:24 PM PDT
There is yet another sign of more problems for air travelers. On Friday, thousands of passengers at LaGuardia Airport were delayed because there were not enough air traffic controllers. How could something like this happen, especially at the height of the summer travel season?

The shortage of air traffic controllers and its potential impact on safety has been much discussed recently. Now, it appears that for the first time, the FAA had to halt planes headed to New York because of too few controllers watching the radar screens.

The cracks in the air traffic control system started to show during a peak afternoon rush last Friday. That's when an FAA advisory went out to control towers nationwide, calling for a ground stop of all planes departing for LaGuardia. Dozens of commercial airlines were kept on the tarmac for up to 60 minutes because of a staffing shortage in New York.

"There is not enough people there to handle the normal amount of traffic," Air Traffic Controller and union official Ed Yurus said. "So they had to put restrictions on to limit the amount of traffic that was flying into LaGuardia's airspace."

At the air traffic facility, on average, one controller per month has resigned or retired. That's about 24 fewer controllers in a two-year period. And while new trainees have been brought in, the union says not one has been fully certified to handle traffic.

In an Eyewitness News investigation three months ago, a New York air traffic controller described how understaffing and heavy traffic nearly led to disaster as two large jets flying 400 miles an hour came within four miles of each other.

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

Friday's one-hour departure delay for LaGuardia-bound planes is the latest sign of an air traffic control system stretched thin and the newest headache for some passengers.

The FAA is scrambling to keep veteran controllers from leaving, even offering some $100,000 bonuses to transfer to busier airports. It is also speeding up training of new hires through the use of air traffic simulators. But until the agency catches up, more delays due to understaffing are likely.

"That is what they are doing to prevent it from becoming a safety issue," Yurus said. "I don't think there is any way around it, and it's going to get worse before it gets better."

We tried repeatedly to get the FAA to respond to our questions about this story. In the past, agency officials have said they plan to hire 2,000 trainees by the end of the year.


STORY BY: The Investigators' Jim Hoffer