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Union: SoCal air traffic control center is understafffed

The FAA denied claims Friday by the air traffic controllers union official that the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control facility — the busiest in the nation — is understaffed and has inexperienced personnel.

The number of fully certified and trained controllers at the Miramar-area complex decreased by 26 percent over the past six years, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. In 2004, the Miramar-area facility had 239 certified professional controllers, with seven more in training.

The total fell to 217 in 2005 and to 199 in 2006, with 23 trainees.

Currently, the facility has 176 certified controllers and 82 trainees, many with no prior controller experience with the military or FAA, the union asserted in a statement.

Without such backgrounds, controllers are at a “severe disadvantage” for successful training at the San Diego TRACON complex, according to the association.

“Asking a new trainee with no prior controller experience to make it here is like asking a person with no flight experience to fly Boeing 747s,” said Mel Davis, the labor group’s SoCal TRACON representative. “It’s possible, and we have some success stories, but what we really need are more experienced controllers to transfer here.”

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor conceded that the number of fully certified controllers at the radar-control facility has decreased since 2004, but characterized the association’s statements as misleading.

He said that since May 2008, the number of controllers went up from 165 to 177, while aviation traffic tracked by the station dropped by about 10 percent over the past six years.

“Right now, they are in good shape,” he said.

In addition, the facility is in line to get 36 more experienced controllers by the end of September, he said.

“It is true that we have a high number of trainees at (the facility),” Gregor said. “However, this is necessary in order to build up the ranks of fully certified controllers. The alternative (would be) to not replace retiring controllers, and that simply is not an option.”

Air-traffic controllers at the Miramar TRACON station have made a total of nine flight-guidance errors — four related to aircraft spacing issues — since Oct. 1. None of the mistakes stemmed from controller staffing levels or experience, Gregor said.

Last week’s plane-separation lapse cited by the union was committed by a 20-year veteran who was under a light workload at the time, according to the FAA spokesman.

“It was a case of good controller just making a mistake,” Gregor said.

Despite the disagreements, the FAA and the union have agreed to meet and “brainstorm” on how to make staff policies and other issues at the SoCal TRACON facility more fully acceptable to both sides, according to Gregor.