There’s no other word for it. This is insane.

As most of you know, I retired from Atlanta Center less than a year ago. We were short-staffed then and had been for years. I remember how often we ran out of controllers when staffing was at 400 controllers. Running record traffic with less than 300 is just plain insane.

Here’s the press release from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.



CONTACT:     Calvin Phillips, NATCA facility representative at Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center, 770-210-7754 

HAMPTON, Ga. – Six air traffic control errors in a five-day period last week and another error earlier this week at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center – the world’s busiest facility – have alarmed controllers who are working record amounts of air traffic with an all-time low number of experienced controllers on staff. 

Six-day work weeks and 10-hour days (normal days are eight-hour shifts) for Atlanta Center controllers are becoming increasingly common. “We are stretched thin, stressed out, overworked and unhappy,” said Atlanta Center NATCA Facility Representative Calvin Phillips. “Those of us who can retire are doing so at the earliest possible minute and those of us who can’t are counting down the minutes until we can.” 

The rash of errors occurred from August 27-31. An operational error is defined as two aircraft coming closer than Federal Aviation Administration minimum separation rules allow. Another type of error is known as an operational deviation, which occurs when an air traffic controller allows an aircraft to enter another controller’s airspace without coordination. Both types of errors represent serious air safety incidents. Four of the errors involved trainees. Another involved an FAA supervisor with less than one year’s experience who was working a control position to cover for short staffing.  

In one case, a recently certified controller operating a very busy high altitude sector that feeds Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was working Atlanta-bound commercial airliners in a holding pattern over Rome, Ga. The overworked, inexperienced controller descended the wrong aircraft, issuing a clearance meant for a lower aircraft to one holding several thousand feet higher in the stack. The aircraft descended through several others holding lower in the pattern.  

In another error, two trainees were working a very busy north departure rush out of Atlanta. Both failed to detect that one of the targets on their radar scope had disappeared as they issued a climb clearance to an outbound commercial airliner. The airliner climbed through the traffic. Last Friday, Aug. 31, a trainee working a sector where training was being conducted for a second trainee, made a mistake in judgment that allowed two aircraft to lose separation.  

Atlanta Center is responsible for the safe flow of air traffic in over 104,000 square miles of airspace encompassing parts of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky, including all of the aircraft landing and departing Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson and Charlotte’s Douglas International. In 2006, the facility handled over 3.125 million aircraft. The facility is divided into seven areas of specialization and operates 45 sectors.  

Before the FAA imposed work rules and pay cuts on controllers one year ago, Atlanta Center was authorized by the FAA to have 444 controllers on staff as a minimum safe staffing level. But last March, without any justification or research to back it up other than budgetary goals, the FAA threw out the authorized level and slashed it by 30 percent to create the low end of a new “range” of desired staffing levels. Meanwhile, traffic has continued to exceed three million operations and is projected to rise every year for the next 20 years.  

Currently, Atlanta has 314 fully certified controllers on staff, but 20 of these employees are medically restricted from duty, leaving 294 experienced controllers to do the work of 444, operating 45 sectors in seven areas, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. These same 294 controllers are also responsible for the on-the-job training of the 124 trainees assigned to the facility. Since the FAA imposed its work rules and pay cuts one year ago, the facility has lost 34 controllers to retirement and another nine have left their jobs to take FAA management positions. NATCA projects that actual losses for Atlanta for the next three years will average over 35 experienced controllers per year, forcing inexperienced, newly-certified controllers and trainees to work more and more sectors alone to cover for staffing shortages.”

Don Brown
September 5, 2007


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