FAA, controllers’ union face off at NY Tracon

 - October 4, 2006, 12:07 PM

The FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association are at loggerheads over an FAA report describing staffing levels, scheduling abnormalities, excessive overtime, ineffective management and “threats, intimidation and inappropriate behavior” at the New York Tracon.

NATCA president John Carr dismissed the report as “character assassination of the work force.” However, the data assembled in the report–written by a 25-person team, including current and former air traffic controllers and independent specialists, following a 60-day on-site investigation–indicates that the New York facility has operated differently from other Tracons across the country.

The impetus for the investigation was several anonymous phone calls to the FAA’s hotline about operational errors in the New York area. The calls followed the FAA’s January introduction of restrictions on overtime at the Tracon and were paralleled by media statements by local NATCA representatives about reduced air safety resulting from understaffing at the facility.

In a subsequent letter to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) stated that reducing overtime was “exacerbating an already dangerous situation,” and added, “We believe the staffing situation poses a threat to the flying public.”

The FAA report, however, paints a somewhat different picture. FAA records for FY04 show that the 210 controllers in New York clocked $4.12 million in overtime pay, more than two-and-a-half times the $1.63 million in overtime paid to the 236 controllers at the Southern California (SoCal) Tracon, although the latter handled almost 60,000 more IFR operations.

In Atlanta, where 69 controllers handled one-third less traffic than those in New York– and each controller handled twice the number of operations as his New York counterpart–overtime pay amounted to $148,545. Expressed in a different way, overtime costs per operation were $0.10 in Atlanta, $0.76 at SoCal and $1.99 in New York.

It also appeared that controller time “on the boards” varies considerably among Tracons. FAA records for FY05 indicated that at Atlanta and SoCal, controllers spend four hours, fifty-six minutes and five hours, six minutes, respectively, on position per eight- hour shift. In New York, they spend three hours, 39 minutes. Last year average New York controller pay was $160,000, excluding benefits. This year, the report noted, more than 50 controllers will make more than $200,000.

In theory, there should be little difference in work rules among Tracons. In practice, there are large differences, due to memorandums of understanding (MOUs) between local NATCA officials and FAA facility managers.

The MOUs, which are said to have flourished during the tenure of former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, have long been the subject of criticism by DOT Inspector Generals and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In 2003, the GAO noted that almost all MOUs were approved by facility managers who were unskilled in union negotiations, were not required to assess any cost implications or obtain higher-level approval and who were, in some cases, simply anxious to reach a “peace at any price” settlement.

The effect of these negotiations at New York was that NATCA essentially set the Tracon’s work schedule and staffing rosters, using a so-called “three-team” formula instead of the “seven-team” formula used elsewhere. According to the FAA report, the three-team approach yielded $3.6 million in annual overtime pay. The seven-team method would have yielded costs of $21,000.

Overtime Abuses

The investigation team found that union control of the schedule “facilitates manipulation that results in unnecessary overtime and habitual overstaffing,” and cited two patterns of manipulation. In the first, one controller would call in sick, and another controller would be asked to come in as a replacement on his day off, at time-and-a-half pay. Some weeks later, the two controllers would reverse the process.

The second example involves a controller showing up for work despite having previously scheduled time off. Under the union’s agreement with the FAA, that controller could not be turned away, but the controller appointed to do the work of the one supposed to be taking time off would automatically get overtime pay.

Investigators also reported misuse of sick leave. According to the report, controllers at the NY Tracon “routinely” called in sick during their five-day work week, but then showed up for overtime on a scheduled day off, creating a six-day work week, including one day of overtime and the paid sick day. Indeed, the attendance records at New York might suggest that the Tracon controllers’ health could be of concern, since they consistently used slightly more than 100 percent of their sick leave allowance.

Stress, of course, is traditionally associated with the ATC profession and, not unexpectedly, controllers claim Workers’ Compensation for job-related stress. At the Potomac, Atlanta, SoCal, NoCal and Chicago Tracons, the FAA report noted, the combined total of stress-related compensation during the first 14 weeks of this year amounted to 504 hours. During the same period at the New York Tracon– where a medical doctor’s note is not required to obtain worker’s compensation–stress took a toll of 3,030 hours on controllers.

The investigative team also analyzed the operational errors at the Tracon, auditing radar and voice data for the three months after the first call to the FAA hotline. Investigators examined 147 previously unreported errors, as well as 13 reported errors, in three categories: failure to maintain separation on final approach; misapplication of wake turbulence standards; and failure to maintain lateral separation.

The FAA allowed that most approach separation errors–2.9 or 2.8 miles instead of three miles– were small enough to be undetected by a controller and agreed that a better definition of approach separation errors was needed for controllers. The lateral separation errors examined were also non-threatening and consistent with similar errors at other Tracons.

However, investigators considered wake turbulence errors more hazardous, and of the 61 cases examined, more than 11 percent were attributed to just one controller, who was removed from his position.

Were those operational errors the result of understaffing? In his statement to the media, Carr asserted, “The FAA has created this chaos by its own hand. It has understaffed the facility.” The FAA report rejects this claim, noting that the investigating team concluded that with 225 controllers, “the facility is more than adequately staffed to maintain safe operations.”

The report added that the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization called for 170 controllers at New York, under proper scheduling. The investigative team also dismissed the notion of controller fatigue, noting the operational errors occurred during periods of moderate traffic and, on average, just 29 minutes into the controllers’ watch. The errors were also found to have occurred when almost half of the on-duty controllers were on their breaks.

Restructuring Union-Management Relations

The investigators found evidence that “managers or supervisors who questioned abuses–for example, time-on-position fraud– were subjected to intimidation and threats from the local union.” After the investigation, the FAA terminated a NATCA representative for falsifying official records, providing misleading statements to investigators, refusing to carry out orders and engaging in “inappropriate behavior.”

The report also noted that while the investigators interviewed dozens of facility employees, supervisors and managers, they were allowed to interview only 10 union-selected controllers.

The team also concluded that “management and the local union must share responsibility for the culture that developed over the last 15 years. Management abdicated its responsibility and allowed the union control of scheduling and overtime.”

The investigating team made a number of final recommendations, including immediate cancellation of the agreements that led to the union’s control of the work schedule and a move to the seven-team formula used elsewhere.

In addition, it recommended that “in response to the extraordinary number of OWCP [Workman’s Compensation] claims, findings of schedule manipulation and evidence of intimidation and harassment by facility employees and NATCA representatives…all relevant information be turned over to the Department of Transportation Inspector General for further review.”

In his statement after the release of the FAA report, NATCA president Carr commented, “I haven’t really had an opportunity to parse through it chapter and verse. But what I have seen,” he remarked, “deeply troubles me.”