The FAA tasked a panel of experts to identify new ways to address air traffic controller fatigue beginning in early January. The panel will examine how the latest science on sleep needs and fatigue considerations could be applied to controller work requirements and scheduling, according to a December release from the FAA.
Jennifer L. Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, told a U.S. Senate subcommittee in November that much fatigue can be attributed to increased flights and a shortage of air traffic controllers.
“The National Airspace System moves over 45,000 flights and 2.9 million passengers, and more than [53,522 tonnes] of cargo daily across more than 29 million square miles of airspace,” she said.
However, “there are approximately 1,000 fewer certified professional controllers than a decade ago,” Homendy told the Senate. “When there are too few fully certified professional controllers, positions have to be combined, resulting in divided attention between different responsibilities. Most commonly, controller staffing shortages are mitigated by reducing efficiency — meaning flight delays. Chronically understaffed facilities also introduce unnecessary safety risks into the system.”
Training and hiring needs
Only three of the nation’s 313 air traffic facilities, amounting to less than 1%, have enough controllers to meet targets from the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Staffing effects from the pandemic and significant retirements have combined to make an already too-small workforce even smaller and less experienced, according to Homendy.
“It will be years before the FAA is back to full staffing,” United Airlines Chief Executive Scott Kirby told analysts this week.
And things will likely get worse before they get better. In her Senate testimony, Homendy highlighted the growing complexity of the U.S. airspace — driven by an increase in drones, advanced air mobility, and commercial space launches and reentries. She also noted the impact of new fuels, including zero-emission and hydrogen aircraft, and a massive increase in lithium-ion batteries, which are classified as dangerous goods, being transported on cargo planes.
Nicholas E. Calio, president and chief executive of Airlines for America, formerly known as Air Transport Association of America, a trade association and lobbying group, called to pick up the pace to train and hire new controllers at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Aerospace Summit in September.
“It will take five to seven years [of hiring] to break even if all goes well,” Calio said. “Do we need five to seven years of further daily disruption? I don’t think so.”
Calio suggested that the FAA allow schools that offer courses on air traffic control to be permitted to administer the FAA’s certification test to speed up the process.
Reduced flight levels
To address the acute shortage of air traffic controllers at New York area airports, the FAA reduced flight levels in the region last year.
“One of the largest challenges — United and all airlines flying to and from New York have historically faced more flights than the air traffic system can handle — is now being addressed, thanks to proactive intervention by the FAA,” United Airlines President Brett Hart told analysts this week.
From a financial perspective, reduced flights can be beneficial to commercial airlines by allowing them to charge higher rates to customers. The same could potentially be true for freighter operators, allowing them to charge higher rates or surcharges when times to land or takeoff are limited due to air traffic controller shortages.