Last month, three local air traffic controllers lost their certifications after three planes landed too closely together at Memphis International Airport.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines require pilots and air traffic controllers to maintain at least five miles of separation between planes, yet the planes landed with 4.85 miles and 4.86 miles between them.
Though there is no way to prove that the errors occurred because air traffic controllers are overworked, local members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) worry that such situations will become more frequent as new FAA guidelines lead to controllers working more overtime.
"This is a thinking job. All the work is done in your head," says Pete Sufka, local president for NATCA. "The more time you spend on position with less chance to get away and recharge yourself, [the more] the quality of work begins to erode."
Many Memphis controllers work 10 hours a day, six days a week, because of staffing problems at the Memphis Tower (which directs planes for Memphis International Airport and FedEx) and the Memphis Center (which controls the airspace above West Tennessee and most of Arkansas and Mississippi).
Last week, the FAA released staffing targets for the country's 314 air traffic control facilities. Under that document, the Memphis Tower should employ between 59 and 72 fully certified controllers. The Memphis Center should employ between 244 and 298 controllers.
The local air traffic controllers' union, NATCA, does not have a current contract with the FAA. However, staffing levels negotiated for a 1998 contract required the Memphis Tower to employ 75 controllers and the Memphis Center to employ 354 controllers, at least 50 positions more than what the FAA says the center currently needs.
"The controllers keep using those 1998 numbers, but 1998 was a long time ago," says Diane Spitaliere, an FAA spokesperson based in Washington, D.C. "Those numbers have no bearing on today's traffic levels."
Spitaliere says the new staffing targets were based on traffic levels at each facility. However, she admitted that air traffic has grown in recent years.
"We're up a little, and we think it will grow significantly in the next 10 years," says Spitaliere.
Sufka says Memphis International has 23 more flights per day than it did before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Air traffic dropped dramatically for several years after the attacks but later rebounded.
Part of the understaffing problem is a result of more controllers retiring, moving into management positions, or transferring to other facilities. By the end of the year, after retirements and transfers, Memphis Tower expects to employ 51 certified controllers.
As a result, controllers are putting in more overtime. Though the FAA claims overtime is voluntary, Memphis Tower controller Peter Nesbitt says he's on the "no-call" list for overtime, but that hasn't stopped management from asking him to work nearly every one of his scheduled days off.
"I like to compare it to an emergency room trauma center," says Nesbitt. "When you go to the trauma center, you want doctors who are alert, trained, healthy, and ready to go to work in the emergency room."