When air traffic controllers at Tacoma Narrows Airport have to use the restroom, they take a portable radio with them to answer calls from aviators.
That’s because under present staffing levels the tower controllers at the airport near Gig Harbor often work alone for several hours at a time with no relief.
The tower, operated for the Federal Aviation Administration under a contract with a private British company, Serco Inc., now employs three full-time controllers and a supervisor who works a maximum of 20 hours a week in the tower. The tower is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.
The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, the union that represents those three controllers, claims they are overworked and overstressed by increasing air traffic at the single-runway airport.
But Serco, in a prepared statement, said the staffing levels at the airport meet FAA guidelines based on the amount of traffic, the complexity of the airport situation and other factors.
The union differed on that assessment:
“Air traffic controller staffing at the Tacoma Narrows air traffic control tower continues to remain at a substandard critical level,” said national union President Ron Taylor. “This facility is operating with only three bargaining unit controllers, who are under constant stress and pressure, working long hours, including many hours of single air traffic controller coverage,” he said.
Air traffic operations — takeoffs and landings — at the airport during hours the tower is open took a big dip during the recession, falling from 120,000 in annual operations in 2008 to a low of just 38,700 in 2013. The number of air traffic controllers working the Tacoma Narrows tower was cut back as traffic fell.
Landings and takeoffs during tower operating hours have begun to revive, according to Deb Wallace, Pierce County’s airports and ferries administrator. The number of operations during tower hours reached 57,000 last year and are on pace to hit more than 65,000 in 2015. Pierce County owns the airport.
Wallace said she has no position on the union’s request. “I think that’s between the union, the FAA and Serco,” she said.
Patco has asked Serco to hire more controllers. The company has yet to respond to the union’s request.
Alan Hill, senior vice president for communications for Serco, said, “Serco reviews staffing levels on a regular basis and adjustments are made depending on a number of factors including, but not limited to, hours of operation, aircraft traffic count, and the mix and complexity of aircraft operations. Requested staffing adjustments are reviewed by the FAA and approved when necessary to ensure safety within the National Airspace System.
“As an example, to address potential increases in traffic during the US Open Golf Tournament last month, we augmented the local staff at the Tacoma Narrows Airport Traffic Control Tower (ATCT) with outside personnel. The normal staffing level at the Tacoma Narrows ATCT conforms to our FAA approved staffing approach and methodology. Serco has provided Air Traffic Control Services to the FAA, military and local governments across the United States for 47 years while receiving numerous awards and recognition for air traffic safety and service excellence,” the company said.
Mike Pickett, longtime owner of Pavco Flight Center, the airport’s main fixed-base operator, praised the work that the controllers do, but had no opinion whether they were overworked.
Controllers say Serco employs more than three tower operators both in Olympia and Renton, two similar airports with traffic counts just barely more than Tacoma’s.
John Gillie: 253-597-8663