Midair Close Call Sparks Debate
FAA, union discuss staff levels, overtime
By Sylvia Adcock
May 5, 2003
A Delta Air Lines Boeing 767 headed to Boston came on a collision course with a southbound jet last week when an air traffic controller on Long Island sent the 767 directly into the path of an oncoming MD-80, officials say.
Union officials at the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center in Ronkonkoma say the controller was distracted by other duties and the mistake was human error that stemmed from inadequate staffing levels.
The Federal Aviation Administration says staffing wasn't an issue, and the allegation comes in the midst of a growing disagreement between the air traffic controllers' union and the agency about staffing levels and the use of overtime. Union officials say the controller forgot about the southbound Sunjet MD-80 in part because he had been working alone on the position and was also in charge of contacting other air traffic control centers about planes about to enter his airspace.
The incident, which occurred at 5:30 p.m. April 27, did not meet the FAA's definition of a near-midair collision, because the distance between the two planes was greater than 500 feet and neither pilot filed a report. But the horrified controller watched as the "targets," or slashes on the radar screen that represent the aircraft, merged as the aircraft were about 40 miles south of Kennedy Airport and just east of McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.
"It was one of the more serious errors I've seen," said Mark DiPalmo, the union chief at the New York center, who watched a replay of the radar tapes.
It's not unusual for controllers to work alone, without a "handoff position" - another controller who functions as an extra set of eyes as well as coordinating with other centers - but controllers say that it should be done only when traffic is light. Another controller was added to help work that section of airspace just moments before the close call because traffic was growing, officials say.
The FAA said staffing was not an issue in the mistake. Rick Ducharme, manager of air traffic for the FAA's eastern region, said the controller was handling only six planes, a relatively light load. He said the controller didn't ask for help, and with several controllers on break, one could have been pulled in to help.
"Our controllers have the ability, and the authority, to ask for and get help," Ducharme said.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents controllers, and the FAA have what some see as a deteriorating relationship. The two sides have reached a tentative agreement to extend their contract, which expires in September. But in recent months both sides have been arguing about staffing levels, the use of overtime and hundreds of side agreements at individual facilities.
In the April 27 incident, the Boeing 767, Delta Flight 1085, was headed from Atlanta to Boston at an altitude of about 37,000 feet. The Sunjet MD-80 bound for the Dominican Republic from Connecticut was on the same airway headed south at 35,000 feet.
That wouldn't be a problem if the planes stayed at their altitudes, but the controller had to begin the process of ordering the Delta flight to descend as it neared Boston. The controller was also talking to a control center near Washington, D.C., about traffic soon to enter his airspace, and was watching another jet approaching the Delta jet's path from the west.
He told the pilot of the Delta plane to descend as the Sunjet MD-80 was 12 miles away. Both were traveling at about 460 mph, with a closure rate of 16 miles per minute - meaning they were less than a minute apart. When the planes were seven miles apart, an alarm in the control room sounded, and the controller told the Delta to climb and turn.
The FAA's preliminary investigation showed that at their closest point, the two were 600 feet apart vertically and a little more than a mile apart horizontally; the standard separation at that altitude is 2,000 feet vertically or five miles horizontally.
The decision to allow the controller to work alone was based in part on the relatively small number of planes he was working, center sources said. DiPalmo said the controller's traffic was about to double, with planes arriving from adjacent sectors of airspace, and that the crisscrossing paths of the planes he was controlling made the job difficult. However, the FAA rated the complexity as only 2 on a scale of 1 to 5.
Union officials say they are becoming increasingly concerned that the agency isn't willing to spend enough for overtime to staff the center. While salaries have gone up under the union's contract signed in 1998, the overtime budget has gone down. In a recent memo, managers were told that "we cannot justify spending operational overtime as we have in the past."
Ducharme said in an interview last week that he is trying to be frugal with taxpayers' money and that he is comfortable that the current budget allows for safe staffing. "I don't think labor and management ever agree on the use of the overtime," he said.
The New York center already has spent $2.5 million since Oct. 1 on overtime.Representatives of the union and the FAA will meet Wednesday to negotiate new staffing figures for facilities in the Northeast.