Advertisement

Air traffic controllers are overworked and stressed — and that's dangerous for safe flying

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 04: The Kansas City Chiefs United Airlines flight comes in for a landing behind the air traffic control tower for Super Bowl LVIII at Harry Reid International Airport on February 04, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
A United Airlines plane lands at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas.Ethan Miller/Getty Images
  • Near-misses between aircraft are increasingly common.

  • The head of the FAA told Congress how its panel is examining sleep science to help.

  • A shortage of air traffic controllers means mandatory overtime, which can lead to fatigue.

An initiative to help prevent close calls between aircraft was announced by the Federal Aviation Administration this week.

Arrival Alert Notices are aimed at stopping "wrong-surface" events, such as a plane landing on the wrong runway or lining up on the wrong taxiway — creating the risk of a collision.

The notices, which the FAA started testing in 2022, give pilots an aerial view of an airport during pre-flight planning. They include important safety information like one runway being farther away than another, or noting that pilots sometimes confuse runways.

General aviation pilots account for 83% of wrong-surface events, the FAA said. But there have also been several recent instances involving commercial airlines.

Last year, The New York Times found that near-misses between aircraft were happening more often than previously thought.

In January 2023, an American Airlines plane taxied onto the runway at JFK Airport while a Delta Air Lines flight was about to take off.

And in July, an Allegiant Air flight attendant was injured when the plane suddenly shot upwards to avoid a nearby private jet at the same altitude.

Despite the best efforts of pilots and air traffic controllers, sometimes collisions do happen.

Earlier in February, two JetBlue planes collided, with one plane's wing hitting the other's tail in a de-icing area at Boston Logan International Airport. It was the third plane collision at the airport within a year, although nobody was injured.

The dangers were made clear in January when a Japan Airlines A350 caught fire after hitting a smaller plane on the runway at Tokyo Haneda Airport.

Japan Airlines crash
No one on the Japan Airlines Airbus A350 died following the incident in January. Richard A. Brooks/AFP/Getty Images

During a congressional hearing on February 5, the head of the FAA outlined its efforts to prevent such incidents.

Mike Whitaker said close-calls and runway incursions — when a plane is incorrectly situated on a runway — were his first area of inquiry when he took over as administrator last October.

He said the FAA is looking into "improved airport signage, and runway and taxiway redesign."

An FAA representative told Business Insider its plans included "technologies that provide capabilities to improve controller situational awareness and reduce runway incursions," such as a device that gives an audible and visual alert to controllers.

In January, the National Transportation Safety Board released its findings about the plane collision at JFK Airport a year earlier. It said the captain was distracted and confused by instructions from air traffic controllers, while the co-pilot lost track of the plane's location.

A collision was only avoided because the controller shouted at the pilots of the other plane to abort their takeoff.

"Overall, our data shows a recent downward trend in the rate of runway incursions," Whitaker said. "But to drive the number of runway incursions to zero, we must continue to focus on and invest in this priority."

Mandatory overtime

One major cause of near-misses is the strained workload of air traffic controllers.

Rich Santa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, previously told Business Insider that many controllers are working six-day weeks and ten-hour days.

And The Times reported that some controllers have turned to alcohol and sleeping pills to cope with their grueling schedules.

Long hours and irregular shifts also cause fatigue, which in turn leads to more problems at airports — as pointed out by Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, during a Senate hearing last November.

"Air traffic controllers are being required to do mandatory overtime," she said. "It ends up leading to fatigue and distraction, which is exactly what we're seeing as part of these incident investigations. And it all just comes down to the shortage of staffing."

A government audit released last June found 77% of critical ATC facilities are understaffed.

Paul Rinaldi, a former NATCA president, told Forbes that shortages began back in 2013 due to funding restrictions from budget sequestration.

"They closed the air traffic control academy," he said. "They looked at reducing hours and many air traffic facilities. They looked at closing and cutting more than 100 federal contract towers, and stopped most modernization projects."

It's also a notoriously difficult job, so there are lots of training requirements. When the world was struck by the COVID pandemic, many training programs were paused, in turn delaying certification for controllers.

The FAA is trying to combat the shortage in a variety of ways, like streamlining training programs.

An FAA spokesperson said it is "accelerating air traffic controller hiring by moving to a year-round hiring track for experienced controllers from the military and private industry," and enhancing training with modernized simulators.

"We are continuing to work on our culture, processes, systems, and integration of safety efforts to maintain our stellar safety record," they added.

Fatigue measures

It's also put together a panel to review air traffic controller fatigue.

"The panel will examine how the latest science on sleep needs and fatigue considerations could be applied to controller work requirements and scheduling," Whitaker said during the congressional hearing.

That includes "risks associated with controller fatigue resulting from shifting schedules and excessive overtime."

For pilots and cabin crew, dealing with fatigue is more apparent because they travel through different time zones, unlike controllers whose biggest risk is exhausting work schedules.

Boeing has developed an "alertness model" used for an app called CrewAlert, which anyone can download to assess fatigue risk.

Brad Surak, Boeing's vice-president for digital aviation solutions, told BI at last year's Paris Air Show: "Its main purpose is for an aircrew who's operating on a complex schedule.

"They're changing multiple time zones, they're getting schedules disrupted, and the airline has to replan where they might be based," he added. "We don't just operate the schedule for economics, we take into account the fatigue level of the crew."

Now it looks like controllers' sleep schedules are set to receive more attention too. Not because they're unavoidably changing time zones like pilots, but because the work is so demanding.

Do you work in air traffic control? Contact this reporter in confidence at psyme@businessinsider.com

Read the original article on Business Insider