The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) has declared a “staffing emergency” in four high-traffic areas: Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and southern California. This emergency signifies a shortage of trained, experienced controllers in these major airports.
The controllers’ association is in a acrimonious dispute with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over contracts. NATCA blames the dearth of controllers on the excessive stress and fatigue as many competent and needed controllers have quit in the last several months. The problem is expected to worsen as an additional 2,200 experienced controllers are set to retire by the end of the year. This would exacerbate “the already depleted ranks of the workforce at a time when the skies have never been more congested,” according to NATCA President Patrick Forrey.
The NATCA details the reasons for an emergency declaration:
- Atlanta: Over the last four years ATL has experienced 30 runway incursions. An incursion occurs when an airplane comes too close to other airplanes or airport vehicles on the ground. Such incidents can be blamed, says the NATCA, on exhausted, overworked controllers.
- Chicago: Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control recorded 56 close calls in 2007, double the previous high which was 28 in 2006.
- New York: At JFK, the number of trained and capable controllers is down 42 percent since 2001 while air traffic has increased 40 percent over the same time period.
- Los Angeles: LAX has had a number of close calls over the past 18 months. Again, the NATCA points to a lack of controllers in the towers.
The FAA continues to challenge the claims of the NATCA and maintains that our air traffic system is safe. And as a matter of fact, 2007 saw zero fatal commercial airline crashes in the United States. So how this matter is resolved remains to be seen, of course, and whether the NATCA is being too demanding or the FAA too negligent is up for debate. However, as fellow travelers, I urge you to be aware and observant when traveling through these airports.