Press Releases

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today warned President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for Transportation Secretary that a chronic shortage of air traffic controllers in Southern California poses an alarming risk to air safety in the region.

Senator Feinstein’s letter to Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) specifically cites staffing shortages at Los Angeles International Airport and at the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility in San Diego.

In her letter, Senator Feinstein recommends that the Federal Aviation Administration take immediate steps to boost staffing levels, including incentives to retain veteran controllers and to attract certified controllers from other regions.

Senator Feinstein has previously raised safety concerns over air traffic controller staffing levels at both facilities. Earlier this year, she asked the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General to investigate staffing levels; the results of the investigation are expected in early 2009.

Following is Senator Feinstein’s letter:

December 29, 2008

Representative Ray LaHood
Nominee, U.S. Secretary of Transportation
c/o Presidential Transition Team
Washington, DC

Dear Representative LaHood:

Congratulations on your nomination to be the next U.S. Secretary of Transportation.  I look forward to working with you during the coming years to improve safety, increase efficiency, and reduce pollution in the transportation sector.

I am writing to express my ongoing concern that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is not adequately addressing staffing issues at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON).  I believe that the current staffing situation represents a serious accident waiting to happen. 

The LAX tower is the fourth-busiest in the nation and it faces an ongoing runway incursion problem that has been attributed in part to controller fatigue.  The Southern California TRACON handles more flights than any TRACON in the world, and its operational errors are way up.  For instance, in November, a controller mistake put a Southwest Airlines jet and an Alaska Airlines jet on a collision course while both planes were maneuvering to land in San Diego.  The Wall Street Journal reported in November that six such incidents have occurred this year in the skies above Southern California.  In June, European airlines reported dramatic spikes in the number of anti-collision warnings around international airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Newark and elsewhere.

Thankfully, onboard collision warning devices have warned pilots to take evasive action, and disaster has been averted.  But these incidents remind us that the Southern California airspace demands the most experienced, most savvy controllers in the nation.  I am not confident that FAA’s current approach to staffing will meet these ongoing demands.

While FAA leaders continue to assert that the system is safe, all parties acknowledge that massive staff turnover is straining the air traffic control system in Southern California. 

I am alarmed that staffing problems at these facilities have persisted for many years.  For instance, the number of fully certified controllers at the Southern California TRACON dropped from 236 in 2004 to 164 in April 2008, prompting me to question the FAA Administrator about this matter at a Congressional hearing.  I also asked the Department of Transportation Inspector General to open an investigation, which he is conducting. 

Despite my concerns, there were fewer fully certified controllers on the job at Southern California TRACON in October (162) than at any time in recent history.  Furthermore, although experts believe that FAA’s apprentice-based training system breaks down when more than 20 percent of controllers are still in training, 29 percent of the Southern California TRACON workforce is currently in training.  In 2009, the facility is projected to be training nearly 100 trainees.

For years, the controller staffing situation has only become more severe.  Retirements have outpaced projections, training goals have not been met, trainees have dropped out of the program at alarming rates, and the supply of available military-trained controllers has dried up.  The status quo is a miserable failure that will threaten safety. 

In Southern California, FAA must take a new approach.  I recommend the FAA immediately consider offering incentives to keep experienced controllers on the job, expand incentives to attract certified controllers from other regions, and alter the training system so that it is capable of efficiently training the massive influx of new controllers as quickly as possible.

I anticipate that the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General will publish his findings and recommendations in the coming months for how to address this crisis.  I hope you will consider his recommendations seriously.

I look forward to working with you to assure the safety of the flying public. 


Dianne Feinstein
United States Senator