Controllers Charge That Safety at O’Hare Is ‘Unacceptable’

 - October 12, 2007, 11:49 AM

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) claims that a shortage of full-performance level (FPL) controllers at the Chicago Tracon–the nation’s third-busiest approach control facility–has brought the level of safety below an “acceptable” level, and the union has asked the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to intervene.

NATCA blames insufficient staffing, rising record amounts of traffic, complicated revised landing procedures and even the closing of Meigs Field for low controller morale and increasing numbers of errors.

“Morale is as low as I’ve ever seen it,” said Ray Gibbons, president of NATCA’s local chapter at the Chicago Tracon in Elgin, Ill. “There’s even a fear mentality present. Controllers are hoping it won’t be them if something bad happens.”

Although the Chicago Tracon is authorized for 100 controllers, NATCA said it currently employs just 73 FPL controllers, a third of which will be eligible to retire within two years and nearly half in four years. At Chicago Center–the third busiest ARTCC–40 percent of the controller workforce will be eligible to retire within the next five years. At the center, there were 12 errors in the last 15 days of April, NATCA said.

While air traffic is down 2 percent nationwide from 9/11, in 2002 controllers at both Chicago O’Hare International and the Tracon worked a record amount of flights, according to the union. In addition, controllers at the Midway Airport tower handled 15 percent more traffic in April since Chicago Mayor Richard Daley ripped up the runway at Meigs. NATCA said that political move unnecessarily clogged other area airports with more than 1,500 monthly operations.