The union for technicians who maintain the navigational aids pilots rely on claim the Juneau area is severely understaffed.
The staffing shortage could lead to increased problems with the radar beacons, weather stations and other navigational aids that help pilots find their way from airport to airport and to land safely, said Ron Rahrig, regional vice president for the Professional Airways Systems Specialist union.
"The potential, especially with the winter months coming up, is for long delays," said Rahrig, who blames the Federal Aviation Administration for moving technician positions from Juneau to Anchorage. "It's a potential for disaster in Southeast Alaska if they continue to do what they do."
Dennis Powell, who heads the maintenance division for the FAA in Alaska, disagrees. He said a trial program that grouped maintenance workers into teams in Anchorage has been highly successful. The Anchorage-based teams are deployed around the state to wherever additional service is needed.
Since the trial program, called the Corporate Maintenance Plan, began in 1997, the reliability of FAA navigational aids in Alaska improved 15 percent, Powell said. The Corporate Maintenance Plan also saved the FAA $6 million, which was reinvested into improving navigational aids, Powell said.
"It's worked," he said.
In 1998 the Corporate Maintenance Program received a Hammer Award from Vice President Al Gore and the National Partnership for Reinventing Government. The three-year trial program was reviewed by an FAA team in 1999, which recommended five of the program's initiatives be tried in other parts of the country, said Bob McAlister, FAA assistant air facilities division manager for the Alaska Region. FAA and union officials have been negotiating the future of a permanent Corporate Maintenance Program since the trial program officially ended March 31.
"We're trying to keep the right number of people and the right skills required in each of our Southeast locations so if we do have an equipment problem they can respond immediately," said McAlister.
The right place for technicians is in the field, said Amy Batson, spokeswoman for the Professional Airways Systems Specialists. If technicians must fly from Anchorage to fix navigational aids in Juneau or other Southeast locations, the repairs are delayed nearly two hours, Batson said.
"Your repair time goes up and also preventative maintenance gets overlooked, because all you're doing is dispatching people from emergency to emergency," Batson said. "Staffing has been getting worse and some of our local members decided that now would be the time to kind of address the issue."
Four technicians, a maintenance mechanic and an administrative coordinator work at the Juneau airport, where 12 maintenance technicians previously were based. Powell said he would like to hire one more technician in Juneau, but must wait until a hiring freeze is lifted when the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1. Statewide, the FAA is 15 technicians short, McAlister said.
Rahrig said the FAA needs at least 100 more technicians in Alaska, but the staff shortage is particularly crucial in Juneau, where the existing technicians are overworked.
"When you work 23 hours of overtime a week just to be correcting things, how long can you be doing that?" Rahrig asked. "You get burnout, you make mistakes. That's not the way people should work and that's not the way the system should be."