FAA urged to improve maintenance of air traffic facilities

The Federal Aviation Administration must improve working conditions at the nation's air traffic control facilities, in part to help address staffing challenges, witnesses told members of a House subcommittee Tuesday.

At a hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, lawmakers and employee representatives pointed to air traffic control facilities infested with mold, asbestos, and other contaminants, all of which, they said, endanger controllers' health and their ability to perform their jobs.

Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the subcommittee, unveiled a short video of the Grand Rapids, Mich., air traffic control center, which is troubled by a leaky roof. "It's alarming and disturbing that we allow our facilities to deteriorate to this extent," he said. "No one should have to work under these conditions."

Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and Tom Brantley, president of Professional Airways Systems Specialists, said FAA should count the safety of its employees as a matter of extreme importance, not only to protect the workforce and the public, but to maintain a workforce that has been diminishing as large numbers of experienced controllers retire.

"The agency's refusal to acknowledge that conditions in their buildings are having a detrimental effect on the controllers' health has directly caused significant suffering by their own employees and costs the taxpayers millions of dollars for misdirected projects, grievances, workers' compensation, lost productivity and inefficiency," Forrey said.

But Bruce Johnson, FAA's vice president of terminal services, testified that the agency has been analyzing buildings since 1999 to determine whether they should be upgraded or replaced. The agency has developed a proposal to consolidate the air traffic control system by 2014. The consolidation would help offset the expense of maintaining 22,000 current facilities, 420 of which house air traffic controllers.

The full committee recognized the proposal in recently approved FAA reauthorization legislation, but the bill also would require the agency to dedicate nine months to gathering input on the consolidation process from all stakeholders, including employees and labor unions.

Costello asked Johnson why the agency has not submitted higher budget requests to help address the maintenance problems at air traffic control facilities. "This shows that the agency hasn't taken the problem seriously," Costello said.

But Johnson argued that the requests have been adequate. "The money we get is the money we use every year," he said.

Still, Forrey and Brantley indicated that fixing the health and safety issues in many of the current air traffic control facilities cannot wait until the agency completes the consolidation plan. They urged the agency to be aggressive in removing mold and addressing other problems reported at facilities. They also asked FAA officials to investigate each instance where controllers are exposed to chemical contaminants.

"They have to begin doing it now and they have to begin doing it right, or the problem is going to snowball into something that is unmanageable," Brantley said.

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