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Raleigh Traffic Most Affected

Major Washington regional radar facility temporarily closes busy airspace due to shoestring staffing

eTN Staff Writer  Jun 20, 2009

The Federal Aviation Administration on Friday evening was forced to close several air corridors above eastern North Carolina for 30 minutes as a desperation move to avoid a serious safety risk when woeful staffing reached this breaking point at Washington Center: one controller, forced to do the job of two for four hours alone with nobody to relieve him, working two sectors of airspace at the end of a long shift that included forced overtime.

The closure, from 5:25 pm EDT to approximately 6:00 pm, created the biggest impact on Raleigh-Durham, NC traffic. Eastbound departures were delayed for an hour, forced to wait on the ground at the airport. Those flights already airborne were forced to be re-routed, having the same fuel-burning, delay-inducing negative effect as if a giant thunderstorm covered eastern North Carolina.

Washington Center is the nation's third busiest air traffic control facilities, handling more than 2.7 million flights a year traversing a large chunk of busy airspace extending north to southern New Jersey, south to the Carolinas, and west to the middle of West Virginia. Much like a hospital closing down blocks of rooms because it doesn't have enough doctors and nurses - forcing existing staff to work more patients short-handed - Washington Center FAA management declared what is called "ATC-0" in two airspace sectors that stretch north-south from an area starting northwest of Wilmington, NC, meaning the airspace was shut down.

Friday's incident was just the latest symptom of chronic failures surrounding the FAA's nearly two-year long effort to redesign the airspace boundaries that controllers work at the facility, shrinking the number of separate areas of jurisdiction from eight to seven. The project specifically excluded NATCA.

There are no trainees assigned to these sectors. There are just five veteran controllers certified to work this airspace with alleged rushed training. There is very little to no relief available, meaning long hours on position, forced overtime, and many six-day weeks, leading to chronic fatigue and the loss of focus.

Major Washington regional radar facility temporarily closes busy airspace due to shoestring staffing
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