Drunk, demoralized, and tired are just a few of the words that sum up the state of many air traffic controllers around the country at the moment. In an industry that has seen a rapid and inspired recovery in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, those working in the towers have continued to face largely unnoticed issues that could pose major risks in the future.
Being an air traffic controller is one of the most stressful jobs. Controllers are responsible for the safety of thousands of passengers each day and must be fully alert for long hours each day. The job is rewarding, if not unsatisfying, because those that are good are never mentioned in the news.
Certainly, the job is not for the faint of heart either, with controllers facing intense pressure day in and day out, with the core aspects of the job requiring constant staring at monitors and computer screens. Often, controllers can work up to ten-hour days, six days a week, which might not sound like a ridiculous amount of overtime, but that adds up in the conditions they work in.
The past few years have been excruciatingly difficult for those working the towers. Staffing cuts in the wake of the pandemic have left many towers chronically and dangerously understaffed. This is even true at large airports like Newark Liberty (EWR), where, over the summer, United faced an operation meltdown because of controller shortages, among other weather-related issues.
While the U.S. airspace is some of the safest in the world, this year has been historically unsafe for the industry in the U.S. By the end of FY2023 on September 30, the FAA had documented 503 "significant" air traffic control lapses, which is 65% more than the previous fiscal year. Remember all the close calls at airports around the country? Those largely aren't coincidences either, with controllers far more mistake-prone as they work longer hours.
Indeed, controllers are speaking out and admitting that fatigue has often led to poor decision-making. Worse, some even predict that deadly crashes are inevitable as a result of chronic problems in towers around the country. Many controllers stay in the job for the high salary and ability to earn more money working overtime, but those benefits aren't without consequence.
Mental and physical health challenges can become serious obstacles, particularly since any treatment of them could jeopardize one's ability to work and earn a salary. Many, in turn, have opted to quit because of their issue and seeing others make serious errors. The FAA expects that around 10% of the entire controller workforce in the country will leave this year, posing major concerns for the workforce next year.
The easiest solution to controllers' challenges would be hiring more controllers. Demand for the job, after all, isn't low like it has been for pilots in the past, but the onboarding and training process often hasn't been quick enough to cope with the more frequent waves of resignations and retirements.
Many controllers fail in training, and the FAA often lacks money to make significant improvements. This isn't a new problem—it has been persistent since the controller strike under the Reagan administration—and will require major financial and training overhauls to see improvements. Those improvements might be needed now more than ever.
This crisis is only getting worse. More controllers are sleeping on the job as they struggle to adapt to an overworked livelihood. Violence between employees is becoming the standard as mental health problems rise to the forefront. Alcoholism is significantly affecting controllers' behavior as workers turn to booze to cope with their work struggles.
The crisis is real, and pessimism is growing. Solutions are available and potentially feasible, but until the public becomes more broadly aware of the issues controllers face on a human level and declines in safety and flight punctuality, the crisis may not be of a great enough magnitude to affect widespread change.
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