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Federal audit raises questions about Atlanta air traffic control staffing

Atlanta air traffic control facilities are pinpointed in an audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General, raising concerns about staffing.

The report says some critical facilities across the nation are understaffed, while others have more than required in the Federal Aviation Administration's plan. The audit also raised questions about how the agency determines staffing plans.

Some terminal radar and approach control facilities, including Atlanta's, "appeared understaffed" when excluding controllers in training, according to the report.

Meanwhile, an FAA air route traffic control facility in Hampton known as Atlanta Center had more controllers on board than required under the FAA's plan, with 343 certified controllers and 33 trainees in October 2014, the audit report said. But it also said 32 controllers were out of commission at the time due to workers compensation claims, temporary medical disqualifications and other assignments, putting staffing levels below the 328 required according to Atlanta Center managers.

The FAA had to use overtime and trainees to fill the work schedule at the Atlanta Center, the audit report said.

AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File

Yet in another conflict, the FAA Office of Resource Optimization concluded that the Atlanta Center could be staffed with 296 controllers by reducing leave slots and eliminating alternative work schedules.

"Headquarters and managers at Atlanta Center have not agreed on the number of controllers needed at the facility," the audit report said.

The report also said "there is still considerable debate and uncertainty regarding how many controllers FAA actually needs for its most critical facilities."

The report comes as some in Congress and in the airline industry push for air traffic control to be removed from the FAA's responsibilities and turned over to a nonprofit corporation. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines opposes the idea.

The FAA in a written response said it "is now centrally managing staffing at the national level," and is expediting employee transfers to facilities that need more personnel.

"The FAA also recently concluded research on how controllers do their jobs that will help improve overall staffing standards," the agency said.

Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, said last month during a Congressional roundtable discussion that "air traffic controller staffing has been a concern for many years, but it has now reached a crisis level." He said controller staffing has fallen 10 percent since 2011, and one-third of the workforce is eligible to retire.

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About the Author

Business reporter Kelly Yamanouchi covers airlines and the airport.