SoCal air traffic relies on trainees

SAN DIEGO The report, released Monday, registered concern about controller staffing at the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility, or TRACON, located near San Diego.

The control center is the busiest in the nation. The report also raised questions about the number of trainee controllers at the Northern California facility, located near Sacramento. Together, the two centers are responsible for planes approaching and leaving California airports.

According to the report, there are 76 trainee controllers, nearly a third of the total, at the Southern California facility. However, the Federal Aviation Administration plans to replace retiring controllers with another 34 trainees later this year, increasing the ratio of trainees to more than 40 percent. By comparison, a little more than one-fourth of air traffic controllers nationwide are trainees.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who requested the report, sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Monday, expressing her concerns.

"I strongly encourage you to develop a plan to address the staffing crisis before safety is compromised," Feinstein wrote. "In my view Southern California TRACON, which handles some of the most complex airspace in the United States, should be staffed with our most experienced controllers, not more than 100 controllers who are yet to receive full certification."

The report also called for "immediate action" to address staffing concerns. Underscoring the problem, the report found that the workload for controllers at the Southern California TRACON has increased 19 percent since 1997.

Even more dramatic is the increase in controllers working overtime. Since 2006, overtime has increased 400 percent at the Southern California TRACON, and has increased 800 percent among controllers working the tower at LAX.

Melvin Davis, Southern California TRACON representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said there is a direct link between air traffic safety and the dual problems of inexperience and increased workload.

"It has taken a normally difficult and stressful job and made it next to impossible," Davis said. "It is directly and dramatically impacting the ability to accomplish the mission. I see fatigue and human mistakes at an alarming level compared to the very recent past when he had a more normal staff level."

Specifically, Davis said there has been an increase in cases in which controllers pointed planes at each other, or in the direction of mountainsides.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the agency is already taking steps to address the problem, by offering $25,000 bonuses to Southern California TRACON controllers who put off retirement for a year, and $27,000 bonuses to controllers from other parts of the country who relocate to Southern California.

"I think the report acknowledges what we've said all along," said Gregor, "Which is that hiring and training new controllers is a challenge, but that it's a challenge that we're prepared for and that we're meeting."

AP contributed to this report



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