Air traffic near-misses by controllers in Memphis on the rise - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Air traffic near-misses by controllers in Memphis on the rise

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Air traffic controllers in Memphis have made as many serious errors in three months as they did in all of fiscal 2007.

A Commercial Appeal report finds since Oct. 1, when the federal fiscal year began, controllers have allowed five planes to come too close in the sky or on landing.

This violates federal rules and has triggered automatic decertification and retraining for the controllers.

Three of the incidents happened in October, including Oct. 23 when two planes came within 1.33 miles of each other as they landed. The Federal Aviation Administration mandates three miles of separation.

The most serious error occurred during a controller training session in December when two regional jets came within 1.1 miles of each other around.

Air traffic controllers say poor morale and forced overtime is wearing them out.

But FAA district manager Bill Wertz says the errors seemed to be caused by controllers rushing to get one task down and overlooking another. He said the average controller is working six-day weeks twice a month.

"The rules they are breaking don't seem to be related to fatigue," he said. "A whole lot of people in salaried jobs work six days a week. If I could eliminate the need for a six-day workweek, I would. But they have proven to be a great utilization of resources."

Union leader Pete Sufka says controllers are being penalized by the heavy overtime it takes to cover all positions and train recruits.

He says 13 out of the 54 controllers at the Memphis tower will be eligible to retire by Sept. 31, and that only a handful of trainees will be ready to fill the slots.

Last year, the center paid $650,000 in overtime, compared to $500,000 in 2006. When more controllers were working at the tower in 2001 and 2003, overtime was closer to $100,000, Wertz said.

He said 17 trainees are now in the pipeline and some are skilled enough to work without supervision.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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