Air traffic controllers complain of co-workers drinking, sleeping
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Aircraft near-misses are on the rise in the US, amid a severe air traffic controller staffing shortage that controllers say is pushing them to the brink physically and mentally.

In the fiscal year through September 30, ‘significant’ air traffic control lapses jumped 65 percent from the prior year, to 503 incidents, according to internal Federal Aviation Administration data reported by the New York Times on Saturday.

Citing records and interviews with current and former controllers, the Times revealed incidents of controllers sleeping and drinking on the job, fights breaking out in control towers, and complaints of dismal working conditions including black mold and biting insects.

Controllers say that due to staffing shortages, they are often forced to work 10-hour shifts six days a week, on irregular schedules that leave them exhausted, mentally depressed, and turning to alcohol to cope.

In a statement, the FAA said the lengthy Times report ‘does not reflect the high level of safety of our nation’s airspace.’ 

‘Flying has never been safer, due in large part to our air traffic controllers. We encourage them to report safety concerns and incidents without fear of reprisal,’ the agency added.

In October, Michael G. Whitaker became FAA Administrator. One of his most urgent tasks has been addressing a surge in close-calls between planes at major airports

In October, Michael G. Whitaker became FAA Administrator. One of his most urgent tasks has been addressing a surge in close-calls between planes at major airports

In October, Michael G. Whitaker became FAA Administrator. One of his most urgent tasks has been addressing a surge in close-calls between planes at major airports

From 2011 to 2022, the number of fully certified controllers declined more than 9 percent, even though traffic increased, according to the times. 

According to target staffing levels set by the FAA and the union that represents controllers, 99 percent of the nation’s air traffic control sites are understaffed.

Under looser guidelines preferred by the FAA, only 63 percent of the facilities are considered understaffed.

To make up for the shortage, controllers at 40 percent of the nation’s facilities are required to work six-day weeks at least once a month, and some of them have to do so every week, according to the union.

While overtime pay offers a nice padding to controller compensation, which typically runs in the six figures, some controllers say they have been pushed to the breaking point.

‘We have recently had a heart attack, multiple panic attacks (including my own), people losing their medicals due to depression and some that just outright quit the FAA because it has gotten so bad,’ a Jacksonville controller wrote in a confidential safety report obtained by the Times in an open records request. 

‘Who knows how many other stress-induced physical and mental issues are happening that we don’t even know about yet,’ the controller added. ‘This place is breaking people. We need help. I’ll say it again, SOS!!’ 

Ashley Smith, who worked as a controller in Atlanta for more than a decade, told the Times she witnessed an increase in mistakes at her facility, which had 77 fully certified controllers instead of the target level of 110.

As morale sank, arguments and even physical fights broke out in the control room, she said. 

After a controller error led to a near-miss between two Delta planes, Smith sent an email complaining to a senior FAA official, writing: ‘The staffing is ridiculous and getting worse.’

‘What level of fatigue is the agency trying to get this work force to before they recognize a serious safety issue?’ the email added. Smith quit the job three months later.

In October. two commercial planes almost crashed shortly after one took off from Portland International Airport during a storm, as seen in a virtual re-creation

In October. two commercial planes almost crashed shortly after one took off from Portland International Airport during a storm, as seen in a virtual re-creation

In October. two commercial planes almost crashed shortly after one took off from Portland International Airport during a storm, as seen in a virtual re-creation 

A simulation shows an incident February in Austin, Texas, when a FedEx cargo plane and a Southwest Boeing 737 came within about 115 feet in poor visibility conditions

A simulation shows an incident February in Austin, Texas, when a FedEx cargo plane and a Southwest Boeing 737 came within about 115 feet in poor visibility conditions

The controller had cleared the FedEx plane to land and the Southwest plane to depart on the same runway

The controller had cleared the FedEx plane to land and the Southwest plane to depart on the same runway

A simulation shows an incident February in Austin, Texas, when a FedEx cargo plane and a Southwest Boeing 737 came within about 115 feet in poor visibility conditions. The controller had cleared the FedEx plane to land and the Southwest plane to depart on the same runway 

The FAA said in a statement that it is ‘is deeply committed to the health and well-being of our air traffic controllers and all of our employees.’

‘We make it clear to our employees that they can and should report incidents, without the risk of reprisal,’ noting that the behavior in the Times report ‘is unacceptable and has already been addressed.’ 

‘Nothing is more important than the safety of everyone who flies in our National Airspace System,’ the agency added.

In October, Michael G. Whitaker became FAA Administrator following a career in executive roles in both private industry and the agency.

One of his most urgent tasks has been addressing a surge in close-calls between planes at major airports.

In August, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 and a Cessna Citation 560X business jet came less than 100 feet apart in San Diego. 

The FAA said an air traffic controller cleared the Cessna to land on a runway even though Southwest Flight 2493 had already been told to taxi onto the same runway.

A similar near-collision occurred in February in Austin, Texas, when a FedEx cargo plane and a Southwest Boeing 737 came within about 115 feet in poor visibility conditions. 

The controller had cleared the FedEx plane to land and the Southwest plane to depart on the same runway.

The FAA said in March it was taking steps to improve its air traffic control operations, which are short-staffed. 

Last month, an independent review board issued a series of recommendations to improve safety in the national airspace.

The FAA said it would take immediate action on several of the recommendations, including measures to expand hiring and training capacity for controllers.

‘Aviation is safe because we are continuously looking for ways to improve,’ Whitaker said in response to the report. ‘The independent safety review team made some excellent recommendations and we are adopting some of them immediately.

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