Tampa International Airport is short of experienced air traffic controllers, a situation that will only get worse with more than half of the veterans eligible to retire, the local union representing controllers said Monday.
The airport will have 43 fully certified controllers and 29 in some stage of training next month. Two years ago, there were 70 controllers certified to perform every job in the radar room and control tower, said Mark Kerr, airport representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
"People don't understand what a time bomb we're sitting on at the Tampa tower,'' he said. "I feel it was safer to fly into Tampa two years ago.''
Trainees work directly with veteran controllers and supervisors, said Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman at the Atlanta office of the Federal Aviation Administration. "The FAA would never allow an unsafe situation nor would the controllers,'' she said.
Nationwide, the FAA is rapidly losing senior controllers. In the 1980s, then-President Reagan fired more than 10,000 controllers after a strike. Their replacements are now reaching retirement age and many are choosing to leave because of a contract imposed on them by the FAA in 2006, Kerr said. The contract froze their base pay.
The agency announced plans last year to hire more than 15,000 controllers over the next decade. But it takes about three years for a trainee out of the FAA's 12-week training course in Oklahoma City, Okla., to become certified as a controller. Even a veteran controller can take two years to gain certification at a different airport, Bergen said.
"There are a higher percentage of (trainees) and people in various stages of training than we'd like,'' she said.
Last month, two controllers who transferred to Tampa International allowed aircraft to get too close on approaches into the airport. On March 20, one let a Continental Airlines 737 come within 4.4 miles of a larger Delta Air Lines 767, inside the permitted 5-mile distance.
A few minutes later, an AirTran 717 had to divert after the same controller allowed the jet within 3.4 miles of a US Airways 757 landing ahead of it. The FAA requires a 4-mile separation for the aircraft.
On March 6, another controller directed a private plane near the airport to descend to avoid another private propeller aircraft. The controller failed to get a response from the pilot, who flew 100 feet below the other plane at a distance of just over a mile, violating FAA separation rules.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.