Report: FAA staffing shortages pose threat to runway safety

A Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday concluded that staffing challenges at the Federal Aviation Administration pose a barrier to the agency's efforts to improve runway and airport ramp safety. The report reignites the staffing debate between FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which has played a significant role in Congress's efforts to pass legislation reauthorizing the agency.

"Although FAA has taken some steps to address human factors issues through educational initiatives," the report (GAO-08-29) stated, "progress on addressing runway safety will be impeded until the human factors issues involving fatigue are addressed."

GAO found that in May 2007, 25 of FAA's 315 air traffic control facilities had 20 percent or more of their controllers working six-day weeks. At 12 facilities, 20 percent to 29 percent of controllers were working six-day weeks. Thirty percent to 39 percent of controllers were working six-day weeks at seven facilities, while at six others, between 40 percent and 52 percent of controllers were working an extra day.

The report said seven airports with more than 20 percent of their staffs working six-day weeks were at FAA's busiest towers, and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the nation's busiest, had 52 percent of its controllers working six-day weeks.

In a fact sheet released the same day, FAA said air traffic controller staffing was only a limited problem, and the agency was completing targeted hiring at busier facilities like Atlanta.

"At some individual facilities, a large numbers of retirees present short-term staffing challenges, and those facilities generally use operational overtime to provide full coverage," the fact sheet said. "In the vast majority of cases, the controllers volunteered for overtime. That situation exists primarily at small facilities, but the FAA is also focusing specific hiring efforts at a few larger locations" such as the Atlanta TRACON."

But GAO said the staffing challenge could be a long-term problem.

"FAA officials said that it may take two to three years before controller overtime can be reduced at some facilities, as the agency acts to replace retiring controllers," the report noted. "Air traffic controller fatigue, which may result from regularly working overtime, continues to be a matter of concern for [the National Transportation Safety Board], which investigates transportation accidents, and other aviation stakeholders."

"Both NTSB and GAO are now on record saying controller fatigue affects runway safety," said NATCA's president, Pat Forrey. "And now GAO has said fatigue is created by working overtime, which in turn is necessitated by staffing shortages…. This is game, set and match. There is nowhere else the FAA can run and hide from this staffing crisis and deny its existence."

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