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Low staffing in Victoria air traffic control worries employees

By Melissa Crowe
Oct. 28, 2012 at 5:28 a.m.
Updated Oct. 29, 2012 at 5:29 a.m.

Mike Barnes, a representative of NATCA, the air traffic control union, says there's a safety issue at the Victoria Regional Airport because of short staffing in the tower, long hours, no breaks, and essentially no human contact for eight hours. The airport has three controllers with one about to be deployed to Kuwait and a manager who is on the road most of the time. When they're out of hours, per federal guidelines, the tower closes leaving pilots without the support they need to safely fly. The airport has about 200 to 300 take offs and landings daily. ANDREA WISE/AWISE@VICAD.COM

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL STAFFING

• LARGEST: Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center

LOW: 290, HIGH:354

• SMALLEST: Columbus Metropolitan Airport

LOW: 5, HIGH: 7

SOURCE: FAA 2012 10-YEAR STRATEGY: "A PLAN FOR THE FUTURE" LIST OF FAA-OPERATED CONTROL TOWER STAFFING.

For more than half of October, Mike Barnes will work his eight-hour shifts in the Victoria Air Traffic Control tower alone.

He balances helping pilots make landings and collecting weather reports and logs. If there's an equipment glitch, no one is there to help.

If he needs a personal break, no one is there to cover.

When the three controllers on staff run out of hours, the tower closes, leaving 200 to 300 daily takeoffs and landings without service.

As a representative to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Barnes is speaking up about what he calls "blatantly unsafe" conditions.

"The (Federal Aviation Agency) does all these studies on complacency and fatigue awareness," Barnes, a Marine who served two tours in Iraq, said. "What's happening in Victoria is in total contradiction to every study the federal government has done."

The FAA recommends "staff to traffic," matching the number of air traffic controllers at facilities with traffic volume and workload. It also supports staffing ahead of need.

Barnes is concerned about staffing in Victoria since the National Guard called on a controller to serve in Kuwait.

Robinson Aviation, of Manassas, Va., has operated the tower since 2008 through a federal contract. When it started, the company employed five controllers and a manager. In 2010, the company cut staff to three controllers and a manager.

Charlie Dove, president of the company, said he is aware of the National Guard soldier.

"As soon as he receives orders, we'll replace him," Dove said.

He said he has no safety concerns with the number of controllers in the tower and has no plan to increase numbers to pre-2010 levels.

"The staffing we're using right now is what's been approved by the FAA," Dove said.

According to congressional testimony on behalf of the union, contract towers, like Robinson Aviation, sometimes put their profits ahead of safety.

The three controller, one manager combination, which typically relies on one person per shift, has become standard among contract towers.

However, the union contends this is not a safe way to work.

Ed Mears, alternate regional vice president of the union's Contract Towers Southwest Region, who is also a controller in San Marcos, said he wants to raise public awareness of the low-staffing issue.

He said the long shifts Victoria's controllers have to spend alone in the tower is mentally grinding.

"They have the ability to get more controllers in the tower," Mears said. "As long as nobody shines a light on them, they won't do it."

In Arkansas earlier this year, a controller working a solo shift had a heart attack. Had he not been able to reach the phone and call for help, no one would have known he was having a medical emergency.

FAA towers staff two controllers per shift to safely and efficiently handle the administrative and supervisory duties, according to that testimony.

Bare bones staffing, the testimony continues, means that controllers at contract towers may be forced into longer time on position without breaks or meals while completing "mentally exhausting work," according to the testimony.

"We have to be 100 percent, 100 percent of the time," Barnes said. "It's almost contradictory to human nature."

On the national scale, the FAA and air traffic controller union agreed on new fatigue rules in 2011 after several incidents involving controllers falling asleep on the job.

The FAA and union recommend breaks up to 90 minutes mid-shift to mitigate risks of reduced cognitive performance because of fatigue.

Airport Manager Jason Milewski said he believes the tower is understaffed.

"I can't go as far to say that there's a safety hazard now," Milewski said. "More staffing would reduce the possibility of having safety issues significantly."

He wants the issue to "be on the plate" for remedy, but it's not a request Victoria County can make, Milewski said.

"They're a great company, and I don't mean to say anything negative against them," Milewski said. "It would be nice to have more controllers and I understand with the limited staff they have there needs to be more relief."

Milewski said airports with comparable traffic are better staffed.

Erin Michael, the chief flight instructor with Calhoun Air Center, spends her days at the airport making countless takeoffs and landings each day.

She has not noticed any issue coming from the control tower but recognizes the possibility of a staffing problem.

"I can see it as being an issue," Michael said. "Air traffic is just starting to pick up. There are only certain parts of the day when they're very busy."

She said military training, which happens from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., is the peak for air traffic.

"When you're inside a company, there are issues people from the outside don't see," Michael said. "I haven't noticed any overwhelmed controllers. They seem really good."

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