A bitter labor dispute has broken out between some of the people most responsible for safety in the skies. US air traffic controllers and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that employs them cannot agree whether enough qualified people are guiding air traffic or how safe the air space is today.
With airline travel rebounding almost to the volume before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, delays on scheduled US flights have reached a record high. Nearly one-third of domestic flights on major carriers were late in June. And air traffic is growing.
At the same time, the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association have been unable to agree on a new contract. A year ago, the FAA declared an impasse and imposed a contract. Since then, the retirement of experienced controllers has soared beyond the agency's forecasts.
"In several places, it has created a safety problem where controllers are working 10-hour days, six-day weeks and working combined positions because they don't have enough fully trained bodies," union President Patrick Forrey said.
FAA figures show the number of fully certified controllers dropped to 11,467 in May -- the lowest in a decade the union says. Beside them in control centers are 3,300 so-called "developmental controllers" who are being trained on the job by other controllers. The trainees are not yet qualified for all work assignments required of fully certified controllers.
"They are pushing the envelope and somebody is going to snap," Forrey warned. "Unless the agency slows down the traffic, someone may make a mistake and then are they going to blame it on the controller?"
By contrast, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said, "This is the safest period in aviation history." She said the contract allowed the agency to more easily move staff to meet the needs of a changing airline industry.
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey says the imposed contract "is saving taxpayers US$1.9 billion over five years ... to invest in 21st century air traffic systems."
The three-year average of fatal accidents on commercial flights has dropped to a record low .017 per 100,000 departures. Fatal accidents on private planes dropped from 354 in 2005 to a record low of 299 last year, and Brown says this year is below last year's pace.
The union says these national figures conceal risky situations in towers, terminal approach and at regional control centers where its members scan glowing radar screens with blips representing planes loaded with passengers they need to keep moving -- and keep apart.
Some of the union's examples:
* At the Cleveland en route center, the fourth busiest US facility, 29 fully certified controllers have retired since the contract was imposed. Nineteen others have been promoted to management and 7 have transferred, leaving 366 certified controllers. Operational errors -- in which planes fly closer than they are supposed to -- soared to 34 this fiscal year, with a month left, compared to 16 in the last fiscal year.
* The Chicago en route center, the fifth busiest facility, has lost 40 certified controllers by retirement and other reasons, leaving 360. So far, the center has recorded 21 operation errors for the fiscal year, compared to 12 the previous year.
* In New York, southern California and Charlotte, North Carolina, on-the-job training of controllers was temporarily suspended this summer to evaluate a rash of errors.