November 09, 2023

Air traffic controller fatigue a factor in airport near misses, Senate panel told

Source: Washington Post


The nation saw almost two dozen serious close calls at airports in the past year, the highest number in more than a decade, and a Senate panel was told Thursday that the rise is partly connected to overstretched air traffic controllers regularly required to work up to 60 hours a week.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who called the hearing as chair of an aviation subcommittee, said the incidents were evidence of a system under stress.

“Our nation is experiencing an aviation safety crisis with near misses that are happening way too frequently,” Duckworth said.

The Federal Aviation Administration, airlines and unions have been scrambling to address the incidents since a spate of close calls rang alarm bells earlier this year. Thursday’s hearing brought risks posed by overworked air traffic controllers into clearer focus, while officials and labor leaders called for more hiring to fill a workforce shortage and new technology to provide an extra layer of safety. But there is likely no quick fix: Training air traffic controllers can take years, and the agency has struggled to secure funding for technological advances.

In all, the FAA logged 23 serious near misses at airports in the budget year that ran from October 2022 to September 2023. Other kinds of close calls, including those in midair, also have drawn scrutiny.

While the role of air traffic controllers was the focus of much of Thursday’s hearing, there are signs that pilots have also made errors in recent incidents. Several have taken off when they were directed to wait, according to investigators.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating six close calls, as well as a collision involving two private jets at a Houston airport last month. No one was injured in any of the incidents, but Jennifer Homendy, the board’s chair, told senators more than 1,300 lives were put at risk and urgent action was needed.

After the hearing, Homendy compared the situation to the early 2000s, when a string of near misses linked to fatigued air traffic controllers preceded a crash that killed 49 people.

“All the red flags are there,” Homendy told reporters. “We are sounding the alarm bells and we need action. Frankly, I don’t want to hear about more meetings. I don’t want to hear about conferences. I don’t want to hear about summits. Goddamn, do something.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association says there are 1,000 fewer qualified controllers working today than a decade ago. The result is that 40 percent of facilities rely on employees working six days a week at least once a month, with several on permanent six-day-a-week schedules, said Rich Santa, the union’s president.

“Air traffic control is already a highly stressful profession,” he said. “Working 200 hours a month layers on significant fatigue and inserts additional risks.”

The FAA met a goal of hiring 1,500 controllers this year and is aiming to recruit another 1,800 next year. But Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said even if the agency meets its goals, it can expect to lose almost one-third of new hires as they progress through training, adding that it will take years for the agency to be fully staffed. Senators have proposed constructing a second training academy to help boost hiring.

Asked whether he was concerned about the schedules controllers are required to work, Tim Arel, head of the FAA’s air traffic control division, said after the hearing that the agency is studying the issue.

“We have negotiated procedures that are based on a human factors study,” Arel said. “We have in place a minimum time between shifts and maximum amount of hours worked. We make sure we adhere to that.”

Homendy said it wasn’t enough to merely comply with procedures.

“You might be meeting the rules, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay,” she said. “You start in the evening, then you start in the morning and then you start midday. That has an effect on your circadian rhythm and you get fatigued.”

Technology that can detect planes at risk of colliding at airports and new alert systems on flight decks could provide an additional level of protection.

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) highlighted a near miss at Boston Logan International Airport in February in which a detection system helped pilots of a JetBlue flight avoid a private jet crossing the runway. But the system is not widely deployed.

“Like when you’re driving a car, if the driver makes a mistake, the air bag is there as the backup,” Markey said. “That’s something we should absolutely be talking about.”

The FAA is a week away from a possible shutdown, along with the rest of the government. Controllers would continue to work, but would go without pay until Congress passes a funding measure. The training academy in Oklahoma also would close, and officials have said even a brief shutdown would cause major disruptions.

A law authorizing the FAA expires at the end of the year. FAA leaders and lawmakers are both aiming for a long-term bill that would allow the agency to undertake the kind of long-term planning needed to upgrade its technology, but key senators are deadlocked over the role of flight simulators in pilot training.

By:  Ian Duncan