WASHINGTON – In a year of record growth at Baltimore- Washington International Airport, air traffic controllers have been cut – a situation some say could lead to accidents.
“We’re working more traffic than this airport has ever worked and we have fewer individuals,” said Karl Ludwig, facility president of the National Air Traffic Controller’s Association. “It’s cutting into our margin of safety.”
Between 1993 and 1994, the number of flights at BWI increased by 12 percent, from 263,559 to 295,413, according to the Maryland Aviation Authority.
Total passengers increased in the same year by almost 36 percent, from 9.4 million to 12.8 million, state figures showed.
“It’s a pretty significant increase, by our statistics,” said James Buckles, Eastern Region manager for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Meanwhile, staff has been cut.
“They’ve increased our workload and decreased the staffing,” said Ludwig. He said BWI lost two supervisors and one controller in the last two years.
He said the tower now has 60 air traffic controllers and seven supervisors.
FAA spokeswoman Joan Brown agreed seven supervisors remain, but said there are 69 air traffic controllers.
Brendan Connolly, NATCA’s representative for the radar control tower at BWI, said the loss of supervisors has hurt the controllers.
“On the midnight shift now, we no longer have supervisors,” he said. “That duty is now assumed by the controller in charge.”
Buckles said an increase in traffic doesn’t necessarily call for an increase in air traffic controllers.
“If a new sector is needed, that calls for new people,” he said, referring to the air space each controller watches. “So far we haven’t come across that yet.”
He said the cutbacks – part of federal government downsizing – have not affected safety. “We’re monitoring it very closely,” he said. “We disagree that safety is impacted.”
“There’s no question it could lead to more accidents,” Ludwig said. “If they keep cutting our resources it decreases the safety factor that’s built into the system.”
There have been four near collisions at BWI within the last year or so, said FAA spokeswoman Joan Brown. Three were in 1993. The most recent occurred in January when a USAIR commuter plane and a small private plane passed within 50 feet of each other.
Brown said that incident is still under investigation.
Washington National and Dulles International airports, which control an airspace similar in size to BWI’s, have also been affected by staff cuts, controllers say.
They are down to 59 controllers each, Brown said.
They each had two near collisions last year, Brown said.