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Saturday, February 9, 2008

Numb3rs

I want to thank everyone for their kind words and for your support of my efforts here. Yesterday, 365 people hit the Yaz's blog, a record. Sure, I'm not in the stratosphere like The Main Bang or Get the Flick – perhaps someday. (Maybe if I keep shamelessly plugging their blogs, I can get a link and ride their coattails!)

You need to bookmark Paul Williams' YouTube page, especially if you're into aviation. Paul has been an activist in NATCA since before I was hired and continues to do an awesome job collecting media clips – video and audio – concerning ATC. His collection includes news reports, interviews and Congressional hearings.

Paul also gave me this gem: "Since October 2006 controllers have been retiring at a rate of 1 every 9 hours." Every time a shift ends, a controller hangs up his or her headset for good. Another great find I have to attribute to Paul – from the FAA's own 10-Year Strategy for the Air Traffic Control Workforce (June 2006) (page 67), "If the FAA is not able to adequately staff its air traffic control facilities, the system response will be observed in the area of system capacity – not system safety ... inadequate staffing levels will result in air traffic control system delays and delays in training." Hmm. I wonder what has changed in the past eighteen months that they now have their hired guns screaming from the rooftops that delays are not being caused by staffing.

Along those lines, a fellow controller at one of the world's busiest approach controls and certainly the most complex in the history of the planet said recently, "I've sat there inundated with airplanes. There are no controllers to provide assistance, so we put the planes into holding. This is clearly delaying air traffic due to staffing. The FAA logs these delays as "volume". It's like driving your car without oil and saying it broke down because you drove it too much.

The Department of Transportation's Inspector General is concerned. Here is an excerpt from testimony on Thursday before The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Subcommittee on Aviation:

Addressing Controller Attrition and Training: The long-expected surge in controller attrition has begun. Since 2005, 3,300 controllers have left the Agency. The total rate of attrition was 23 percent higher than FAA had projected. However, FAA has accelerated its hiring efforts to fill vacancies. Since 2005, FAA has hired 3,450 new controllers-25 percent more than projected. Still, FAA faces a major challenge as it must hire and train 15,000 new controllers through 2016.

As a result of the high level of controller attrition, FAA is facing a fundamental transformation in the composition of its controller workforce. The overall percentage of controllers in training has grown substantially over the past 3 years. From April 2004 to September 2007, the overall size of the controller workforce remained constant. However, during the same period, the number of controllers in training increased by 1,177, or 53 percent, while the total number of fully certified, or Certified Professional Controllers (CPC), decreased by the same amount. New controllers now represent 23 percent of the workforce (up from 15 percent in 2004). However, that percentage can vary extensively by location-from as little as 2 percent (e.g., Boston TRACON) to as much as 50 percent (e.g., Las Vegas TRACON).

A major challenge in addressing the attrition surge will be to train new controllers to the CPC level at their assigned locations. Facility training can take up to 3 years and is the most expensive part of new controller training. Training new controllers to the CPC level is important for two reasons: (l) only CPCs are qualified to control traffic at all positions of their assigned area and (2) only CPCs certified for at least 6 months (at their assigned location) can become on-the-job training (OIT) instructors for other new controllers. FAA must have enough OIT instructors at all locations if it is to achieve its ambitious hiring and training plans for the next 8 years and beyond.

It is important to note that new controllers who have completed portions of training and have been certified on a position can independently staff that position. However, controllers are not qualified CPCs until they have certified on all positions within their assigned area. In addition, using position-qualified controllers extensively to staff positions can lengthen the time required for them to become CPCs since they are not training on other new positions.

During our review, facility managers, training managers, and even Headquarters officials were unable to tell us who or what office was responsible for facility training. FAA needs to clarify responsibility for oversight and direction of the facility training program at the national level and communicate those roles to facility managers.

In addition, FAA has not comprehensively evaluated its facility training program. In its 2004 Controller Workforce Plan, FAA stated it would "conduct a thorough review of facility training to ensure it begins where the Academy ends. This review will take into consideration other efficiency gains identified in this plan and will result in facility training programs tailored to meet the needs of developmental controllers of the future." FAA intended for this effort to help reduce the time it takes new controllers to become CPCs. However, FAA never conducted the evaluation. FAA must follow through with this evaluation and its Controller Workforce Plan initiatives.

FAA plans to increase the number of developmental controllers to over 30 percent of the total controller workforce. This would be the highest percentage of developmental controllers in the past 15 years. In its Controller Workforce Plan, FAA estimates that the controller workforce at each facility can comprise up to 35 percent in developmental controllers and still maintain operations and training.

FAA also estimates that if facilities exceed that amount, training times would significantly increase because the number of developmental controllers would surpass available training capacity. However, we found that many facilities already meet or exceed the 35-percent level. As of September 2007, 61 facilities nationwide (nearly 20 percent of all FAA air traffic control facilities) exceeded that level, compared to just 22 in April 2004. This represents a 177-percent increase in just 3 years. For example, as of September 2007:

• Miami Center had 195 CPCs and 108 developmental controllers (36 percent developmental).

• Oakland Center had 164 CPCs and 100 developmental controllers (38 percent developmental).

• Las Vegas TRACON had 23 CPCs and 23 developmental controllers (50 percent developmental).

Most facility managers, training officers, and union officials we spoke with disagreed with FAA's estimate of an acceptable level of developmental controllers. They stated that, in order to achieve effective controller training while maintaining daily operations, the maximum percentage of developmental controllers should be limited to between 20 percent and 25 percent of a facility's total controller workforce.

The difference between these estimates and FAA's maximum percentage is disconcerting, particularly since 61 facilities already exceed the FAA limit. A significant issue is that FAA's 35-percent estimate was originally intended to determine how many developmental controllers could be processed through the FAA Academy-not how many new controllers that could be trained at individual facilities. However, it appears FAA is now using that percentage as a benchmark for all facilities.

Anyone still want to tell us it's all a labor dispute?

One last thing: The FAA has decided to help us manage our fatigue in facilities in the DC area – by stocking the vending machines with this little gem. I'm sure it's harmless, so nothing to worry about feeding these to air traffic controllers:

Epinions: "Took a bottle of this 10 minutes before a rugby match. After the rugby match I ended up in the medical tent for 3 hours trying to get my Blood Pressure and my heart rate down. I'd suggest caution if taking this while exercising, while out in the sun, or while you think you might be dehydrated."

Actually, it is pretty innocuous. It is basically a mega-dose of Vitamins B6 (2000%) and B12 (8333%). Too much B12 can cause neurological disorders, but one would have to drink six of these daily over a long period of time. It just amazes me that this agency has a hissy fit over controllers taking ibuprofen and ginseng but thinks nothing of peddling energy drinks.

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