US senators told shortage of ATCs has caused spike in aircraft close calls

an American Airlines Boeing 737 and Spirit Airlines A320neo were involved in a near-miss at Boston Logan International Airport BOS

On November 9, 2023, a United States (US) subcommittee met to hear evidence from aviation experts about the spike in aircraft close calls at airports over the last year.  

The Aviation Safety, Operations and Innovation subcommittee, chaired by Senator Tammy Duckworth, heard from Jennifer Homendy, the Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Timothy Arel, the Chief Operating Officer of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Traffic Organization and Rich Santa, President of the National Air Traffic Controller Association.   

The senate committee was told that a shortage of air traffic controllers (ATCs) has led to a number of problems that have affected aviation safety.  

“We have cited staffing shortages, which lead to scheduling issues, fatigue, lack of or deficient supervisory oversight, distraction, ineffective scanning and the need for value-added training,” Sen. Cantwell, Chair of the Commerce Committee, said.  

Jennifer Homendy claimed that ATCs are being required to work mandatory overtime.   

“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.” Homendy said.  

Rich Santa also cited understaffing as a root cause of tiredness and staff being overworked.  

“It’s unsustainable. The answer is not continuing to burden us with more fatigue and continuing to burden us with more effort and work. It’s hiring the right amount of controllers so that our facilities are not understaffed,” Santa told the committee.  

Industry experts informed senators that the most important action needed to address ‘near miss’ incidents and boost safety is to pass the Senate Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization bill. This would instigate key investments in the air traffic controller workforce, runway safety technology and critical infrastructure improvements. 

Capt. Jason Ambrosi, President of the Air Line Pilots Association, said: “First and foremost, the bill not only provides funding and stability for the FAA and FAA programs, but also for the latest safety technology on runways, for the hiring of more air traffic controllers, for workforce development and a host of technological additive.”  

The US has experienced a number of serious close calls at airports across the country, resulting in a 44% increase in such incidents over the last year. 

Airports where Airport Surface Detection Equipment (ASDE-X) has been installed have seen very positive results.  

The proposed bill would see the FAA receive $67.5 billion over five years to fund operations and increase controller staffing, plus a further $18.2 billion investment to ensure that all large and mid-sized airports have the technology to prevent close calls.  

“We cannot have people working six days a week. We need people who have the ample amount of rest and capability to deal with, as my colleague Senator Duckworth said, probably one of the most stressful and challenging jobs there is,” Sen. Cantwell said. 

In August 2023, an American Airlines Boeing 737-800 NextGeneration (NG) and a Spirit Airlines Airbus A320neo were involved in a near-miss (main photo) at Boston Logan International Airport (BOS).

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