F.A.A. to Investigate Exhaustion Among Air Traffic Controllers

The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to form a panel to look into the potential risks posed by exhaustion among air traffic controllers, many of whom have been working round-the-clock schedules that have pushed them to the physical and emotional brink.

The F.A.A. expects to announce more details about the three-member panel on Wednesday, said Jeannie Shiffer, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Michael Whitaker, the F.A.A. administrator, said at a news conference at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Tuesday that “as far as fatigue goes, we’re taking this issue very seriously.”

“We’re looking at 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 F.A.A. is creating the panel in the wake of a New York Times investigation this month that revealed how a nationwide shortage of air traffic controllers had resulted in an exhausted and demoralized work force that was increasingly prone to making dangerous mistakes.

The Times reported that virtually all of the nation’s air traffic control sites were understaffed, forcing many controllers to work 10-hour days, six days a week.

Mr. Whitaker said on Tuesday that the F.A.A. was trying to address the staffing shortage. “We know we need more air traffic controllers,” he said. “We’re working hard to hire from a variety of sources and keep them moving through the training pipeline.”

Investigations published by The Times this year showed how the nation’s vaunted aviation safety system, while still remarkably safe, was under mounting stress. Potentially dangerous close calls have been happening, on average, multiple times a week this year. Some air traffic controllers say they fear that a deadly crash is inevitable.

Errors by air traffic controllers have been one major factor. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, there were 503 air traffic control lapses that the F.A.A. preliminarily categorized as “significant,” 65 percent more than in the prior year, according to internal agency reports reviewed by The Times. During that period, air traffic increased about 4 percent.

In November, a group of outside experts appointed by the F.A.A. called for “urgent action” to address safety risks in the nation’s aviation system, highlighting issues like air traffic control staffing and outdated technology.

In response to the Times articles, lawmakers and industry representatives have called on the F.A.A. to address the shortage in air traffic controllers.

“The air traffic controller staffing shortage is a real safety crisis,” Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, said in a statement following publication of the Times investigation on air traffic controllers.

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, said in a statement, “Widely respected aviation experts are warning us that failure to solve 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 thoroughly review measures in place to address controller fatigue, burnout and general physical and mental well-being.”

She said The Times’s descriptions of exhausted controllers “reflect a dire level of occupational stress that imperils the health of every controller employed by the F.A.A. and jeopardizes the safety of America’s traveling public. These accounts must be treated seriously and met with a focused effort to address unsustainable controller workload and increase mental health resources and support.”

At the news conference on Tuesday, which came as the holiday travel crush gets underway, Mr. Whitaker said safety was paramount at the agency.

“We will make sure that safety is always above efficiency,” he said.

Sumber: www.nytimes.com

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