When you fly back and forth between your home district and Washington DC, what runs through your mind? Do you ever think about the working conditions of the controllers who are safely guiding you from point to point?
The answer is most likely "no." We must be able to trust that the Federal Aviation Administration keeps its employees safe and keeps the flying public safe. That trust is slipping away with stories such as the Memphis Enroute Air Traffic Control Center's fire and not letting the employees evacuate, the New York carbon dioxide poisoning, the Jacksonville roofing fiasco, and Detroit and Atlanta Enroute Air Traffic Control Center's ongoing mold issues.
Just in Atlanta for example, controllers have had a leaky roof for several years, at times having to use an umbrella to prevent water from getting on the equipment while separating aircraft at high rates of speed. Employees have complained for years about walking into the building falling ill, becoming congested, having a headache, etc, and then being forced to work for hundreds of millions of passengers and over three million operations every year. These complaints have been met with sick leave abuse letters instead of an investigation. With the number of experienced air traffic controllers declining, and those remaining often working six day weeks, this compounds the stress level of these professionals unnecessarily.
Rick Baugh, who works for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) as a representative at the regional level, transferred from Fort Worth Center in Texas to Atlanta Center in October 2001 and by December of that year, began having symptoms such as severe sinus infections and severe headaches along with a few other minor symptoms. "I continue to have the headaches on an almost daily basis," Baugh said. He added that the mood in the facility among controllers is "difficult to describe without actually seeing it."
"Everyone is upset that this was not discovered before," Baugh said. "They feel betrayed by the FAA for not believing us when we told them we were having health problems. Now we feel let down by the agency once again for not taking any corrective action. There were things that could have been done even without removing the mold. There are letters on record requesting that certain areas of operation that are worse than others be moved to unoccupied areas of operation in an attempt to get further from the mold. Such efforts proved fruitless. 'Cost prohibitive,' I believe, was the term used."
Baugh said it is no longer a running joke when controllers are assigned to certain operational control positions that are in closest proximity to the mold. "People argue over who has to go to these positions," he said. "It is usually determined by who has been in the building the shortest amount of time as they are usually less affected by long term exposure."
What has the FAA done about this situation in Hampton, GA over the last several years: they had an air quality test done a few years ago by an FAA contractor, and the FAA failed to follow the guidance and recommendations given by the contractor. Other than that test, NOTHING.
Nothing up until now. The workforce grew tired of waiting for their employer to do the right thing. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association started meeting with Congressman Westmoreland's office in January of 2007. The Congressman met with Rick Day from the FAA and voiced his concerns and those of his constituents. Unfortunately even after a member of Congress expressed his concerns, the FAA still did nothing. So in May, the Union and its employees went out and hired an environmental hygienist at a cost of around $14,000 to investigate air quality issues at a federal building. Since then more mold issues have been found by the Union and its hired environmental specialists. The FAA has not really shown much interest in fixing its employees' working conditions until a contractor the FAA hired to do remodeling of some portions of the building put a work stoppage on the project and abandoned the site.
Now since the contractor is walking out the FAA is trying to rectify the situation, but still is not involving the union or the employees in trying to make the conditions right. Fortunately, NATCA recently had the entire Georgia Delegation write a letter to Secretary Peters encouraging her to get the FAA in line and fix the building.
Still trust the FAA to keep you safe? The administration might not be looking out for the best interest of its employees and the flying public, but rest assured America's Air Traffic Controllers always have and always will. Fortunately for us we have the best air traffic controllers in the world and they keep us safe even under these conditions.