FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 11, 2007
Schumer Reveals: NYC Airport Control Towers Woefully Understaffed By 30%, Could Undermine Passenger Safety
Record Number of Retiring Controllers in 2007 and Impending New Budget Cuts Will Hurt Safety and Exacerbate Crippling Delays
Today, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer revealed that air traffic control towers at New York City area airports are 30% understaffed and that record retirements slated for 2007 along with President Bush's new budget cuts will further jeopardize air travel safety and exacerbate crippling delays. To resolve this impending crisis, Senator Schumer today called on the Senate Appropriations Committee to triple funding in the Fiscal Year 2008 budget to boost controller recruitment, training and hiring. He also called for the repeal of new salary reductions imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that hinder recruitment efforts in the New York City area.
"Air traffic controllers are the eyes and the ears of airport safety, and in 2006, we saw that a reduction in controllers results in a spike in the number of close calls and even tragic accidents," said Senator Schumer. "New York's depleted air traffic control towers will become increasingly overwhelmed when it comes to safely and efficiently directing planes through the city's congested airspace. The FAA needs to stop playing Russian roulette with our air travel safety and give their controllers the first class treatment they deserve."
In October, 2006, a Continental Airlines Jet carrying 154 people landed on the wrong runway at Newark International Airport, serving as the latest reminder that New York's air traffic controller shortage could result in a potentially disastrous accident. Schumer warned staffing and recruitment problems are expected to only grow worse due to new FAA rules that have slashed starting pay for controllers in New York. In addition, for the Fiscal Year 2008, the Administration just cut its request from $18.2 million to $15.9 million for recruitment, training and hiring, which would only add an estimated 114 controllers nationwide.
Senator Schumer today disclosed data detailing how New York control towers are perilously understaffed by 30%, impairing controllers' ability to adequately manage runway traffic and prevent more near-aircraft collisions. LaGuardia Airport and JFK Airport control towers currently have only 27 and 30 fully-trained controllers on staff when 36 controller positions should be filled at both airports. In New Jersey, Newark International Airport and Teterboro Airport control towers have only 29 and 13 controllers when 40 and 26 positions should be filled. The New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in Westbury, which is responsible for controlling aircrafts that arrive and depart from the New York Metropolitan area, one of the largest airspaces in the country, is authorized to have 270 controllers but currently has only 187.
A primary reason for the growing shortage of controllers is a spike in the number of retiring air traffic controllers triggered by the FAA's unwillingness to pay controllers overtime for filling in for a coworker. In the past, traditionally between 1% and 2 % of the controller workforce became eligible for retirement each year. Recently, however, the percentage has increased to between 3% and 4% annually, and this year it's expected to peak at approximately 10%, and then remain above 5% per year through 2011. The FAA has estimated that 7,100 controllers, approximately 45% of its current workforce, will retire over the next eight years.
In the New York City area, where the cost of living is among the nation's highest, the following numbers of controllers are eligible for retirement in 2007: 40 controllers at NY TRACON, 6 at the Newark International Airport, 5 controllers at LaGuardia Airport, and 1 at JFK Airport.
The controller shortage also contributes to crippling delays at New York's airports. The city's regional airports remain among the worst in the nation in terms of on-time arrivals and departures. In December 2006, according to the most recent available data collected by the federal government's Bureau of Transportation Statistics, New York's three major airports ranked 30th, 29th and 28th out of 31 airports for on-time arrivals at major U.S. airports. Newark fared the worst, ranking 30th with a 56.5% on-time rate, almost two percentage points worse than in December, 2005. JFK, ranked 29th, had a 61.12% on-time arrival rate, more than four percentage points worse than in 2005. And LaGuardia, ranked 28th, had a 63.64% on-time arrival rate.
For on-time departures in December 2006, New York's three major airports ranked 29th, 27th and 15th out of 31 major U.S. airports. JFK, ranked 29th, had the worst on-time departure rate at 67%, 2.5% worse than in December 2005. Newark, ranked 27th, had a 68.26% on-time departure rate. And LaGuardia, ranked 15th, had a 73.52% on-time departure rate.
"Unless we take immediate and drastic action to replenish our depleted ranks of air traffic controllers, New Yorkers can expect to spend more time waiting in airport terminals and on runways, and less time on vacation with family and friends," add Senator Schumer.
Schumer today called on the Senate Appropriations Committee to triple funding and include $47.7 million in the FAA's budget for air traffic controllers. He also reiterated his call on FAA Administrator Marion Blakey to boost recruitment by increasing training benefits for prospective air traffic controllers. Prior to September 2006, air traffic controller trainees received a $30,000 salary and per diem stipend. However, under the newly imposed contract, the FAA cut their salary to approximately $17,000 per year and eliminated the per diem. Schumer recently sent a letter to Blakey asking her to restore the annual salary to last year's level and restore the per diem stipend, but is still waiting for a response.
Senator Schumer has a long track record of championing air travel safety, and on September 4, 2006, blasted the FAA for air traffic controller shortages in the New York City area and across the country. Schumer has long believed that continued short staffing and labor strife between the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and the FAA has created a serious safety situation that, with ever-increasing air traffic in New York area, could one day have dire consequences.
On September 28, 2006, Senator Schumer announced that the FAA gave final approval for $62 million for a new air traffic control tower at LaGuardia Airport which will ease crippling flight delays at the airport and help controllers manage traffic on the runways in order to prevent more aircraft collisions. The current control tower at LaGuardia Airport is dilapidated, leaks water, and is equipped with outdated technology and plagued by visibility problems due to a nearby terminal that partially blocks its view.