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Air traffic controller questions procedures at Huntsville airport

By Eric Fleischauer
DAILY Business Writer 340-2435

Is Huntsville International Airport safe? Not as safe as it could be, said one of its air traffic controllers.

The adequacy of Federal Aviation Authority staffing of air traffic control towers has been in the spotlight since the crash last month of a Comair regional jet while it was taking off from the airport in Lexington, Ky. The crash killed 49 of the 50 people on board. In violation of FAA rules, a single air traffic controller was handling both radar and surface operations.

Before the crash, Huntsville like Lexington at times had only one controller in the air control tower. Since the crash it has a minimum of two, but without a corresponding increase in staff. That has caused other changes that Huntsville air traffic controller Pat Gamble, local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, believes negatively impact airline safety.

  • Controllers have to work more hours — up to 48 a week — to accommodate the additional staffing. That increases controller fatigue and increases the risk of mistakes.
  • Training of new air traffic controllers has suffered, delaying their readiness. Training takes up to two years.
  • At peak times, there are fewer air traffic controllers available to handle the planes coming in or going out.
  • On one occasion, Huntsville had to hand over its radar functions — during hours in which it was scheduled to be operational — to Memphis because it only had one controller in the tower.

    "Is it safe? Yes, I think so. But it would be safer with more people," Gamble said.

    17 controllers

    Huntsville has 17 controllers, two supervisors and a single staff member who is not qualified to bring in a plane. Those controllers must work shifts that cover the control tower's daily hours of 5 a.m. to midnight. While the tower is closed, air traffic control operations are performed, solely by radar, from Memphis.

    In August, according to FAA records, 8,478 planes landed at or took off from Huntsville airport, an average of 273 per day.

    In the late 1980s, Huntsville had as many as 30 controllers, plus four supervisors and two staff members, both of whom were qualified to bring in a plane. During that period, Huntsville had slightly lower plane traffic than it has now.

    Typically four controllers start their eight-hour shifts around 5 a.m., one comes midmorning, and another four come in the afternoon.

    Tower Chief Ray Palmer declined comment. In a press release, FAA said it planned to hire another 930 controllers by the end of the fiscal year.

    According to Gamble, one management proposal to help alleviate the staffing problem is to close the tower at 11 instead of midnight. Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said the latest that passenger jets land at or depart from Huntsville is about 10:30 p.m.

    Even later passenger jets would not pose a problem, she said.

    "We have airports all over the country where we have passenger jets landing without any tower at all," Brown said.

    The FAA's newly enforced two-controller requirement causes particular problems in Huntsville, which is the site of many military training exercises.

    "It can be a burden if a lot of (military planes) show up at the same time, which happens from time to time," Gamble said. "If you get a bunch of them from each base in a day, it gets pretty busy. It becomes a national security issue."

    Air traffic controllers receive no advance warning on either military exercises or other heavy influxes of planes, so the tower is stuck with the number of staff scheduled for that day, regardless of plane volume.

    In addition to the military planes, the controllers must assist passenger planes. In August, 2,873 passenger planes landed at or left Huntsville. That's an average of 93 a day.

    Since the Lexington tragedy, the FAA has promised to add five air traffic controllers to the Huntsville staff. Three of the five that the FAA has asked to relocate, according to Gamble, failed their training at larger airports. One of the existing Huntsville controllers failed training at a larger airport.

    Trainee controllers

    The trainees ultimately may not achieve certification at Huntsville, either, a possibility that would aggravate the controller shortage.

    "Our last two controllers who came here with little or no radar experience didn't make it," Gamble said. "Just because you're getting a (trainee) controller doesn't mean they're going to make it."

    And in the meantime, more controllers will retire.

    "The trainees are 1-1/2 or two-year projects for Huntsville, so by the time they're certified, if they're certified, we'll have lost even more. It's a vicious circle."

    Brown said all five controllers will arrive at Huntsville by the end of October. She said two of them are experienced and should achieve certification quickly.

    She said ideal staffing for Huntsville is "probably 18 to 20. That number is a little dynamic based on how many trainees you have compared to the percentage of experienced controllers."

    Controllers are eligible for retirement after 25 years. The replacement workers hired after the nationwide 1981 strike, therefore, are now at retirement age. That bubble has caused a national, and a local, shortage.

    Gamble said two Huntsville controllers retired in recent months, two more are to retire in January and up to five more by the end of 2007.

    "We'll bring in more if we need them," Brown said.

    Anxious to retire

    The long hours and chaotic shifts, Gamble said, tend to increase retirement percentages. Controllers who once planned to work beyond retirement age now are anxious to get out.

    "We know that 70 percent of the controller work force is going to turn over in the next 10 years," Brown said.

    Huntsville controllers have to work overtime, and training of its three existing trainees has suffered, Gamble said.

    Working overtime on an already stressful job is tough, Gamble said. Shift times exacerbate the problem. Frequently there are fewer than nine hours between a controller's shifts.

    "You get fatigued," Gamble said. "It's hard to stay sharp.

    "There's not been any close calls. We're just down to the point where when you get busy, there's not a lot of help," Gamble said. "For all the people we're about to lose, they should have had people in here a year or two ago to get them up and running and certified in time. FAA just hasn't done that."

    Rick Tucker, executive director of the Huntsville-Madison County Airport Authority, said air traffic control staffing and safety issues are between the FAA and its work force.

    "They've been able to accommodate our customers. We're confident in the system," Tucker said Tuesday.

    "We're operating the airport traffic control system as safely and efficiently as possible," Brown said.

    'Is it safe? Yes, I think so. But it would be safer with more people.'

    Pat Gamble

    Huntsville air traffic controller and local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association

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