FAIRBANKS, AK – After years of progress and modernization designed to prevent aircraft from crashing into mountainous terrain, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has taken a big step backward in Fairbanks, giving in to staffing shortages created by its own imposed work rules and B-scale pay rules and removing the critical safety service given by controllers to pilots navigating the challenging surrounding terrain.
The problem stems from the unsafe staffing level at Fairbanks, which has responsibility for the airport control tower and the terminal radar approach control facility (TRACON). The facility is required to staff two controllers during the overnight “midnight” shift, one to work tower and the other to work radar. That rule was established by the FAA in 2005 but promptly ignored by the agency in 2006; the crash of Comair Flight 5191 in Lexington, KY occurred with only one overloaded controller on duty handling both tower and radar duties.
In Fairbanks, the FAA has begun circumventing its midnight shift staffing rule by closing the Fairbanks TRACON and giving the airspace over to a regional radar center in Anchorage. But Anchorage Center does not have Minimum Safe Altitude Warning (MSAW) equipment active for the Fairbanks Approach Control airspace. Interim procedures in place require Fairbanks Tower to monitor radar and relay this critical safety information. This directly violates the FAA midnight staffing rule that there shall always be one controller handling tower duties and one to handle radar duties. Furthermore, it creates the very real possibility that low altitude warnings will not be issued in time to help aircraft that are dangerously close to a controlled flight into terrain.
“Plain and simple, the FAA has not learned its lesson from Lexington and is once again making poor decisions that now needlessly threaten the lives of those who use this airport during the overnight hours,” NATCA president Patrick Forrey said. “These procedures are unsafe and inadequate.”
Said Fairbanks NATCA Facility representative John Brown: “The critical, time-sensitive nature of safety alerts dictate that it would not be safe to relay the MSAW alerts to the Anchorage Center controller. Anchorage Tower controllers are being assigned to bolster the Fairbanks staffing, but even with their presence the FAA is refusing to restore the 24-hour TRACON operation. With two Anchorage controllers on hand we will have the same staffing we had during the summer of 2008.”
Fairbanks is Alaska’s only radar approach control facility outside Anchorage. The north half of the state alone is over 300,000 square miles (Texas is 268,000 square miles) with dozens of communities that are not on the road system. These communities rely almost entirely on air service for health and safety transportation. Numerous public safety missions are flown from Fairbanks, everything from search and rescue to wildfire suppression and law enforcement. Dedicated aircraft are based at Fairbanks for these purposes.
Fairbanks is the alternate airport for flights arriving at Anchorage during inclement weather or other service disruptions. Traffic diverting from Anchorage uses this airport on a regular basis. One night in December 2008 seven Boeing 747s arrived at Fairbanks during the midnight shift due to Anchorage weather.
Anchorage Center NATCA Facility representative Richard Fagg expressed concern over the degraded margin of safety with this FAA decision. “The controllers here are now faced with working airspace they have had no training on and providing a service that is significantly degraded from what the users would receive from Fairbanks approach controllers,” he said. “As soon as an incident occurs, you can be sure that the controller, and not the people who set this disaster in motion – FAA management – will be the one blamed and punished.”