The man who heads the Air Traffic Controllers Union at the control tower at John F. Kennedy Airport says that the near-miss reported at the airport last week is only one manifestation of a deteriorating situation, which could spell disaster from the air for Rockaway residents.
Long-time controller Barrett Byrnes, who works in the JFK control tower and serves as its union chief, told The Wave this week that the “staffing in the tower is deplorable,” in terms of the number of flights arriving at, or departing the massive airport, and the number of controllers available to route and safeguard those flights.
Controllers at JFK route planes around the airport until they are clear of the area, and are turned over to a regional control center on Long Island, called TRACON.
Byrnes says that the recent nearmiss supports the argument that controllers are overworked and overstressed.
“Traffic is up more than three percent, and the number of controllers to handle them is down 30 percent,” Byrnes said. “And, with mandatory retirement, it’s only going to get worse.”
The union chief points to the fact that many of the present controllers were hired between 1981, when the Air Traffic Controllers went on strike and many of them were fired by President Ronald Reagan, and 1984, when staffing levels began to return to normal in the towers and control centers.
Many of the controllers hired in the early 1980s to replace the striking workers have reached, or will soon reach, retirement age.
According to Byrnes, controllers can retire at 50 with 20 years of service, or at any age with 25 years of service.
Those hired in the early 1980’s are in that range now.
In addition, controllers reach mandatory retirement age at 56. Those hired in their mid-20s in the early 1980s will soon be forced to retire, whether they want to or not.
Byrne says that, this situation will leave an even larger hole in the local control towers. He says that it takes at least three years to train a controller in a busy tower such as JFK’s, adding that the training new hires now receive is “just not enough.”
“Add 25 to 1981, and what do you get?” he asked. “2006.” Add 27 to somebody who was 22 or 23 years old when he took the job in 1981, and what do you get? Lots of people being forced to retire.”
He says that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has hired seven new people for the tower in the past two years.
“One quit, one didn’t cut it and the others aren’t ready,” he said. “We’re far behind the curve.”
An FAAspokesperson, responding to a request from The Wave questioning the lower number of controllers earlier this year, said, “The tower [at JFK] has been overstaffed for years. Now, it has the right number of people to do the job.”
Byrnes does not agree. He told The Wave in May that Rockaway was facing another disaster, akin to the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 into Belle Harbor in November of 2001.
“It hasn’t gotten any better,” Byrne said this week. “In fact, it has gotten worse.”