Union: Low staffing at LAX worsens delays

Airline passenger advocacy group says staffing levels are part of a larger problem

A Federal Aviation Administration employees’ union says low staffing levels have exacerbated flight delays at Los Angeles International Airport caused by an unknown problem with a landing navigation system earlier this month.

The Instrument Landing System helps pilots land planes when weather conditions limit visibility. An ILS signal disturbance at the airport on the hazy morning of Aug. 7 caused 46 delays, FAA officials said.

FAA employees are responsible for maintaining ILS and information technology systems at the airport.

Ray Baggett, the Professional Airways Systems Specialists regional vice president for the area covering LAX, said that when the incident occurred, the only on-site LAX technician was in the air traffic control tower fixing other equipment and could not respond to the ILS issue. FAA officials had to call an off-site technician to address the problem, Baggett said.

“Had there been another dedicated maintenance person there at LAX, the response time could have been much less,” Baggett said. Additional help also would have reduced delays, he said.

LAX has one on-duty FAA specialist to respond around the clock to system outages. The FAA has other technicians throughout the airport and at satellite sites during normal weekday working hours, Baggett said.

The same system experienced intermittent signal interruptions Aug. 5, 6 and 14. FAA officials said the Aug. 5 and 6 glitches did not cause any delays. But on the morning of Aug. 14, the system was down for about 40 minutes, resulting in 13 delayed arrivals.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said technician staffing at LAX has no bearing on issues involving the ILS. However, since the Aug. 14 incident, the FAA has stationed a technician on the airfield next to the ILS equipment. That extra staffing will continue for the time being, Gregor said. “We’re ensuring that somebody is physically out there, able to respond to anything instantly that might happen, whereas before we had somebody at the airport” in the general vicinity, he said.

FAA employees’ union officials say temporarily stationing a technician full-time next to the ILS is a stopgap solution that will not improve the long-term health of the airport’s aviation systems.

“They’ve increased the dedicated 24/7 staffing for now, when they suspect a reoccurrence of the failure,” Baggett said. “But what are they doing for the long term? Is a qualified specialist going to be on-duty and on-location when the next unexpected outage occurs? Is a lone specialist going to be already working on other problems when another failure occurs?”

The union wants a permanent increase in round-the-clock technician support at LAX.

“At an airport the size of LAX, reducing the number of qualified on-location specialists to one person, at any time, is an unwarranted gamble with air traffic control system safety and efficiency,” Baggett said.

Technicians are still monitoring the affected ILS closely, Gregor said. The ground-based system typically broadcasts precise directional signals to pilots, telling them whether they are on target when they approach the runway. Recently, however, the ILS has been shutting itself down, a safety mechanism triggered when a signal problem occurs.

After the Aug. 14 incident, technicians replaced part of the system that might be the culprit, Gregor said. The device, called the recombining unit, helps measure the accuracy of the directional signal sent to pilots.

FAA officials suspect the recombining unit was sending a false reading, indicating that the directional signal was incorrect and causing the fail-safe mechanism to shut down the system.

FAA officials have ruled out the possibility that the system’s age was responsible for the signal disruption. “The system is not old,” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. “The age of the system had nothing to do with the problem.”

Calls mount for greater management response

Flight delays at Los Angeles International Airport have drawn criticism from a new public interest group and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), among others.

Boxer sent a letter to the Transportation Department’s inspector general requesting an investigation into the Federal Aviation Administration’s management of LAX equipment.

“Sen. Boxer believes we need an independent investigation to determine whether there is enough funding to do the routine maintenance of the FAA systems at LAX and enough funding to replace the systems if they are failing,” said Natalie Ravitz, Boxer’s communications director.

Americans for Safer Air Travel, an advocacy group for passengers and air travel employees, said it views technician staffing levels as part of a larger problem: a lack of redundancy in the National Airspace System. The group wants more accountability built into the management of air travel systems.

“When you’re flying at 30,000 feet, you want the FAA to have erred on the side of redundancy and more backup systems, not fewer, and having enough trained technicians on duty sure seems to us like that’s part of the equation,” said Jared Leopold, the group’s spokesman. “As consumers, it strikes us that it’s time to consider making 24/7 technician presence a permanent procedure to ensure the safety of the thousands of travelers who pass through LAX every day.”

— Aliya Sternstein

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