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Published: Sunday, 1/2/2005

Shortage of controllers threatens cargo flights at Toledo Express

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo Express Airport has taken a few hits lately.

ATA Connection pulled out last month, costing Toledo nonstop service to Chicago Midway. US Airways pulled its service in September, and TransMeridian Airlines is cutting its Las Vegas flights beginning Wednesday.

On a smaller scale, a decision by several airlines in the fall to stop paying for pooled skycap service at curbside resulted in complaints from some passenger who cited the airport s claims of being a better alternative to Detroit Metro.

Now, a Federal Aviation Administration discussion about shutting down night air traffic control tower operations at some of America s smaller airports could threaten one of Toledo Express biggest revenue generators: nighttime air cargo.

The control tower issue relates to a nationwide shortage of air traffic controllers.

The FAA is looking for ways to stretch its labor pool of qualified air traffic controllers as it scrambles to hire and train thousands more in anticipation of a wave of retirements expected by 2008. One idea: shut down the night tower operations at Toledo Express and 47 other airports around the country.

Local officials say the idea would threaten Toledo s air cargo business. BAX Global, for example, has 18 flights per night from Monday through Thursday at Toledo Express.

My thinking is they looked at commercial airline schedules and said, Oh well, these airports fall into a category that the demand for late evening flights is not dominant. They fail to realize that a major portion of traffic here in Toledo comes late in the evening and in the early morning through air freight operations, said Jim Hartung, president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, which operates the airport.

The hours under discussion by the FAA are from midnight to 5 a.m., after which passenger traffic across the country picks up, said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing controllers.

Only one commercial passenger flight lands at Toledo Express after midnight, said Brian Schwartz, spokesman for the port authority.

But Port authority board member Opie Rollison, who is chairman of the board s airport committee, said Toledo Express is faring better than many other airports in the country.

My position is it s ridiculous to cancel nighttime service. I m not concerned with it because of our air cargo that alone will justify our night operations, he said. The entire [commercial airline] industry has been having a rough time. There s been at least two bankruptcies in the last 60 days. But in the last 60 days [Toledo Express] paid off $1 million in debt. We ve managed it well, and I feel confident we will have more flights in the future.

Mr. Rollison said a new airline with service in and out of Toledo Express would be announced this month, but he would not comment further.

Meanwhile, the FAA and its controllers face mounting work loads and shrinking work forces. About 11 percent of the 15,100 controllers across the country could retire by 2008, and 75 percent of the current controllers could retire over the next 10 years.

The control tower idea was exposed after the union received an FAA e-mail about the matter that listed Toledo Express, Akron-Canton, and 46 other airports. It s something we kind of intercepted, Mr. Church said.

Congress received a report late last month from the FAA on its plans to aggressively hire and use new technology to speed up training of new controllers. Many of the retiring controllers were hired in the early 1980s, replacing union controllers represented by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization that then-President Ronald Reagan fired for going on strike. The new hires were all around the same age, and so will begin retiring around the same time as they become eligible.

Controllers become eligible to retire at age 50 and face mandatory retirement at 56.

An idea under consideration by the FAA is to increase the mandatory retirement age to 61 for controllers who are deemed medically fit.

The FAA is trying to figure out a way to place the right number of controllers in the right places because Congress wants us to be more efficient, said spokesman Tony Molinaro.

Every day across the country, little blips on illuminated screens represent air traffic planes traveling at 500 mph and faster and others circling as they wait their turn to land.

The planes shuffle in a carefully choreographed production of takeoffs, cross-country travel, and landings. Lives depend on it.

In between the nation s airports, in air space unclaimed by any major city or airport, planes traveling at altitudes of five miles and more are tracked by intermediate tracking stations manned by hundreds of air traffic controllers the largest of which is near Cleveland.

As planes descend into local air space, such as around Toledo Express, local controllers take charge.

The FAA has refused to comment on the internal discussion about airport tower closings or even confirm a discussion is taking place. Mr. Church said the union does not yet have an official position on whether such closings would be a good idea.

The union, however, said that the coming retirements, and the FAA s plan for hiring more than 1,000 new controllers a year starting in 2006, is fraught with training issues. It takes from 2 to 5 years to properly train an air traffic controller, and with every retirement, a veteran trainer is also lost, Mr. Church said.

We are approaching a nationwide crisis over the next five years because we have so many who are eligible to retire. This is not something that gets solved with one stroke of a pen, with a bill, or an act of Congress. They propose much better numbers in hiring; we ll see if they can get the money, he said. We hope the reserves get there in time. That s why we have characterized this report to Congress as too little and too late.

The FAA says it stands behind its idea that training can be speeded by using new simulators that mimic sitting in a real control tower.

In the next 10 years, we have to be ready. We have to have a lot in the pipeline, Mr. Molinaro said.

Mr. Church said controller training is similar to that for becoming a firefighter: There s no substitute for the real thing.

Mr. Hartung said the FAA needs to be creative and aggressive.

I think they re going to have to do some very serious planning for air passenger service in America, he said. There s going to be continuing demand for air space, and it s going to have to be managed properly with aggressive training and by introducing new technologies in the absence of bodies.

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com or 419-724-6077.


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