FAA managers say air traffic control oversight lacking

Management cuts and pay inequity in the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control operations are contributing to declining safety in the skies, agency managers told a House panel Wednesday.

Management cuts and pay inequity in the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control operations are contributing to declining safety in the skies, representatives of agency managers testified at a House hearing Wednesday. John Fisher and Arthur Eickenberg, members of the FAA conference of the Federal Managers Association (FMA), told the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee that poorly trained controllers-in-charge are replacing air traffic control managers. The resulting lack of management oversight has led to increased operational errors, they said. Operational errors occur when two airplanes fly too close to each other in the air. Such errors increased by 51 percent from fiscal 1996 to fiscal 2000. Representatives from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) did not testify at the hearing, but said the managers association's claims "blatantly mischaracterized" safety initiatives at the FAA. "It is sad and unfortunate to see an organization like FMA mischaracterize the FAA's successes for its selfish agenda," NATCA President John Carr said in a press release. A 1998 collective bargaining agreement between NATCA and the FAA expanded the controller-in-charge program, under which certain controllers are given temporary authority to run air traffic control operations when supervisors are absent. Under the expansion program, more controllers are being certified as controllers-in-charge while the number of supervisors is being cut. Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead weighed in on the issue in a January report. Mead told GovExec.com that he supports the CIC program in theory, but that implementation has not been smooth. FMA recommended that Congress increase supervisory and support staff at air traffic facilities to stem the rise in operational errors. They also recommended increased funding for FAA's operations budget and pay parity in FAA's compensation system. Some air traffic controllers in field offices make more money than their regional managers, who are members of the Senior Executive Service, due to certain provisions in the NATCA collective bargaining agreement. Robert Kerner and Keith DeBerry, representatives of Professional Airways Systems Specialists, an organization of FAA safety inspectors, testified at the hearing that staffing shortages and inadequate funding for training and on-site inspections make it harder for safety inspectors to do their jobs well. "Our staffing levels remain well below what is needed to accomplish all our responsibilities and assure that safety is not compromised. On top of that, the inspectors we do have can't spend enough time in the field doing inspections because of all the administrative tasks they have to complete," Kerner said in written testimony. DeBerry said aviation safety inspection workers have been reduced to "mere paper reviewers," and said budget constraints keep inspectors from conducting important surveillance if travel is necessary. The inspectors also called for increased funding to hire aviation safety technicians to assist inspectors with the paperwork aspects of their jobs, as well as improvements in the aviation industry's main safety oversight program, the Air Transportation Oversight System.