Air-traffic control leadership shuffled

Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt shuffled the leadership of the air traffic control system Friday, moving to revitalize a 15,475-member workforce that has been shaken by reports of controllers sleeping on the job and near-collisions in mid-air.

Babbitt also named an independent panel to review the training and qualifications of new controllers.

The changes come two weeks after Babbitt forced the resignation of Hank Krakowski, head of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, and days after he vowed to make a top-to-bottom review and overhaul of operations.

“The FAA’s focus is safety,” Babbitt said. “These changes ensure that we have the right people in the right places to help us carry out our mission.”

The agency’s problems come at a time when air travel appears safer than ever. There hasn’t been a major crash in almost a decade, and there have been just two fatal commuter plane crashes in the past five years.

That impressive record has been sustained at the same time that controllers — whose primary safety mission is to keep planes from colliding — saw their count of recorded errors increase by 51 percent last year. Most of those errors posed little risk, but in at least a dozen cases passenger planes narrowly missed colliding in mid-air.

Trish Gilbert, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said part of the problem is that there is massive turnover in the workforce.

“With any occupation, there are those that don’t do the job or act in a away that is appropriate,” Gilbert said in a discussion on The Washington Post’s Web site. “From 2006 to 2009, we lost one third of the workforce due to retirement when their pay was frozen. The FAA then rehired more than 7,000 new trainees, with many washing out of the program.”

She said that a third of the workforce has less than five years’ experience and that many of them are still doing on-the-job training.

“We believe that the FAA has just started to take the right steps in better screening and training of the ATC candidates,” she said.

In the most recent personnel moves, Babbitt gave three FAA veterans new managerial responsibilities: Walt Cochran was given oversight for all airport towers and radar facilities; Chris Metts was put in charge of centers that direct planes when they reach cruising altitude; and Glen Martin was named manager of the Cleveland center that directs cruising-altitude planes.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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