Should we trust the FAA? Its employees don’t

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Management of the FAA and its controllers have been at loggerheads for many months. Now a report in The Washington Post reveals groups of other employees, as well, have problems with management.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) has been pointing out incident after incident where it says management’s actions are affecting safety. The Comair accident at Lexington, Kentucky, for instance, occurred when only one controller was on duty in the tower and had to take a break to do paper work, resulting in his not noticing the flight had lined up with the wrong runway.

Other incidents include everything from pilot fatigue, short staffing, and complaints about radar, to banning weather radios in ATC facilities.

Last fall the FAA banned all weather radios, commercial radios, and cell phones from ATC facilities. When a tornado ripped through the Daytona Beach Airport and carved a destructive path through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, six controllers on duty had no warning until it hit 150 yards away. (Three months earlier they had the latest severe weather warning radios.) At the time they were vectoring a regional airline jet to the airport, but had no knowledge a tornado was embedded in the severe weather. A similar incident involving tornados occurred at the DuPage air traffic control tower in Illinois.

At Raleigh-Durham, controllers were unaware of a chemical plant explosion near the airport that evacuated 70,000 persons and left a toxic cloud over the area, which several planes flew through. In Hayward, California, controllers could not get up-to-the-minute reports on a mild earthquake nearby.

Staffing shortages and work rules are causing delays and unsafe conditions, the NATCA continues. Two Southwest Airlines flights were put into a holding pattern and delayed for 18 minutes going into the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport on April 6 because of what NATCA says was a staffing shortage at the Manchester tower. Only one controller was on duty and worked two hours and 40 minutes without a break. He took a break and approach control was ordered to hold all incoming flights. At the same time a Lifeguard flight with a human transplant aboard was forced to wait 10 minutes for takeoff.

NATCA claims the FAA is short 1,100 controllers from what had been working the system three years ago. The agency says it needs to hire 15,000 controllers over the next 10 years to replace those eligible for retirement.

The FAA and controllers have had differences since before President Reagan fired 11,000 controllers who went on strike. However, the study reported in The Washington Post indicates only 9.3% of the controllers said they trusted FAA management and just 8% said they believe that agency management is honest in how they share information.

While the controllers were less trustful of FAA management, over all, only 17% of employees said they “”trust management,”” while 16% agreed that “”FAA executives are honest when communicating with employees.””

This is the same agency that says “”trust me”” on user fees. For instance, a news release issued by the FAA to “”clarify”” issues of the user fee proposal declares it is a myth that Congress would not have oversight of the FAA. The statement says “”…all FAA funding — user fees, taxes, and the general fund — would remain subject to Congressional appropriations.”” That’s true. Congress would maintain reins on spending the money, but not collecting it. Under the FAA’s proposal, unless Congress specifically prohibits or places limits on collections, the FAA would be free to establish any amount for any service, at any place, at any time.

“”Trust me. I’m here to help you.”” Are we willing to take that chance?

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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