The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to form a panel to investigate the potential risks posed by burnout among air traffic controllers, many of whom have been working around-the-clock jobs that have pushed them to their physical and emotional limits.
The FAA expects to announce more details about the three-member panel on Wednesday, agency spokeswoman Jeannie Shiffer said.
FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker said at a news conference at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Tuesday that “when it comes to fatigue, we are taking this issue very seriously.”
“We are considering launching a group to examine fatigue among air traffic controllers in the very short term to identify if there are risks,” he said, “and if there are, we will act accordingly to mitigate those risks.”
The FAA is creating the panel following a New York Times investigation This month it revealed how a nationwide shortage of air traffic controllers had resulted in an exhausted and demoralized workforce that was increasingly prone to making dangerous mistakes.
The Times reported that virtually every air traffic control site in the country was understaffed, forcing many controllers to work 10 hours a day, six days a week.
Whitaker said Tuesday that the FAA was trying to address staffing shortages. “We know we need more air traffic controllers,” he said. “We are working hard to recruit people from a variety of sources and keep them moving forward in the training process.”
Research published by The Times this year showed how the country's vaunted aviation security system, while still remarkably safe, was under increasing pressure. On average, potentially dangerous situations have occurred this year by the skin of their teeth, several times a week. Some air traffic controllers say they fear a fatal crash is inevitable.
The errors of air traffic controllers have been one of main factor. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, there were 503 air traffic control failures that the FAA preliminarily categorized as “significant,” up 65 percent from the previous year, according to internal agency reports reviewed by The Times. During that period, air traffic increased about 4 percent.
In Novembera group of external experts appointed by the FAA called calling for “urgent action” to address safety risks in the country's aviation system, highlighting issues such as air traffic control staffing and outdated technology.
In response to the Times articles, lawmakers and industry representatives have called on the FAA to address the shortage of air traffic controllers.
“The air traffic controller staffing shortage is a true safety crisis,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said in a statement following the publication of the Times investigation into air traffic controllers.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a statement: “Widely respected aviation experts warn us that failure to resolve these human capital issues could prove catastrophic.”
On Tuesday, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, sent a letter to Mr. Whitaker, urging the agency to “comprehensively review the measures implemented to address driver fatigue, burnout, and overall physical and mental well-being.”
He said the Times' descriptions of exhausted controllers “reflect a dire level of occupational stress that jeopardizes the health of every controller employed by the FAA and jeopardizes the safety of America's traveling public. “These accounts must be treated seriously and addressed with a concentrated effort to address the unsustainable workload of controllers and increase mental health resources and support.”
At Tuesday's news conference, which came as the holiday travel rush began, Whitaker said safety was paramount at the agency.
“We will ensure that safety always comes before efficiency,” he said.
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