The United States is home to what the FAA calls the safest and most efficient airspace system in the world. But several aviation experts tell NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit a crisis has hit America’s aviation industry; one that could mean headaches for travelers and could put that top-notch safety reputation in jeopardy.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of certified air traffic controllers safeguarding our nation’s skies is at a 27-year low.
A recent wave of retirements where no workers have been hired to replace them has left fewer controllers to monitor increasing air traffic at towers and radar centers across the country.
Now Bay Area controllers are warning that delayed flights and safety impacts could soon follow if the staffing shortage is not addressed.
Rich Burton and Shawn Blondin are among the recently retired veteran controllers. With more than 25 years of experience working in the tower at Mineta San Jose International Airport, the two say they felt the brunt of working at a short-staffed facility.
“I had to work later shifts. More overtime. As a matter of fact, I worked overtime the weekend before I retired,” Blondin told NBC Bay Area. Blondin also noted he was frequently asked to work two positions at once when there weren’t enough controllers in the tower.
"There is an inherent risk to the system when you've got tired air traffic controllers. Overworked air traffic controllers,” Burton said. “If they are not adequately staffed, they’re working multiple shifts of overtime, ultimately what happens is mistakes are more likely to happen.”
According to data from the FAA, San Jose’s tower has only three quarters (76.9%) of the certified air traffic controllers the FAA considers to be full staffing. But the problem is even more severe at Chicago O’Hare (76.5 percent), New Orleans (75%) and Miami (67%).
Staffing numbers also show the controller shortage extends beyond airport towers, impacting radar facilities that control high altitude flights known as TRACONS.
- New York (60.6%)
- Dallas (61.3%)
- Atlanta (69.1%)
- Denver (73%)
Steve McCoy works at the regional TRACON facility based in Sacramento, handling all air traffic flying through Northern California. Their TRACON facility is operating at its lowest staffing level ever.
“It’s not good for the flying public,” McCoy said. “Where we normally have seven or eight people on a shift, if we’re now limited to five or six, we’re going to have to slow airplanes down.”
Scott Conde works out of Oakland’s Air Route Traffic Control Center based in Fremont. The center controls high altitude air space from the West Coast to Guam. He believes overworked controllers is becoming a problem everywhere.
“Regardless of whether you work the towers, approach control, or the center, everybody is tired,” Conde said. “We’re at an all-time low for certified controllers. It’s a lot of six-day weeks, a lot of overtime on the front or end of your shift, and a lot of working sectors combined where you would prefer to work them separate.
“Picture yourself driving in your car,” Conde said. “You’re trying to clean your windows, you’re trying to program your (navigation) system, you’re trying to change the radio. You’re not really sure where you’re going. And all the cars around you are going 400 miles an hour. So doing that by yourself, you’re going to slow down a bit because you have to do one thing at a time in order to make sure it’s safe.”
“We’re not going to compromise safety, but it is a fact of the matter that we will slow things down,” said Fred Naujoks, an air traffic controller at SFO. “If it gets to the point where we’re over our limit, then we’re going to slow things down.”
He, Conde and McCoy all talked to us as representatives of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the air traffic controllers’ union.
Congress recently took up the staffing issue at a hearing earlier this summer. The FAA officials acknowledged the problem and said they are working to streamline its current hiring process.
FAA officials are now working to hire 1,400 new controllers immediately. But with pending retirements for an aging workforce, this shortage has been in the works for decades and will likely take years to address. The process for training and certifying a new controller can take up to three years. Plus, many new hires simply wash out because the demands of the job are that great.
Commercial airline pilot Doug Rice says tired and overloaded controllers is a problem he has also noticed in recent years.
“You'll hear a little frustration; he’ll get short with another pilot. You hear that. You’ll hear a guy make a mistake. He'll set you up behind an airplane, he'll set you up high, he misses an altitude,” Rice, a captain for a major airline, said.
NBC Bay Area examined safety complaints filed in the Aviation Safety Reporting System over the past 10 years. The anonymous database is maintained by NASA and allows people in the aviation industry to file reports without fear of punishment. Records show hundreds of mistakes and delays where controllers cited staffing shortages and heavy workloads as a factor.
STAFFING AND WORKLOAD SAFETY REPORTS (Sample 2006-2016)
“There certainly is that perfect storm that’s probably on the horizon. ... There is the likelihood that there could be a catastrophe and that that's not something that anybody wants to see,” Burton said.
The FAA maintains that America has the safest aviation system in the world, adding that safety and staffing are top priorities.
As of Aug. 15, 2016, the FAA says 29,000 applicants have applied for the 1,400 positions. But even if all those air traffic controllers are hired tomorrow, experts estimate it will take an additional 1,500 controllers to maintain adequate staffing and keep up with retirements.
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