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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Drunk and asleep on the job: Air traffic controllers pushed to the brink

A plane passes over I-5 on a routine approach to San Diego International Airport, on Nov. 30, 2023. San Diego is one of hundreds of airports facing a shortage of air traffic controllers; a series of recent close calls here show how the combination of overworked controllers and thin staffing can create dangerous situations.

By Emily Steel and Sydney Ember

One air traffic controller went into work drunk this summer and joked about “making big money buzzed.” Another routinely smoked marijuana during breaks. A third employee threatened violence and then “aggressively pushed” a colleague who was directing airplanes.

The incidents were extreme examples, but they fit into a pattern that reveals glaring vulnerabilities in one of the most important protective layers of the nation’s aviation safety system.

In the past two years, air traffic controllers and others have submitted hundreds of complaints to a Federal Aviation Administration hotline describing issues like dangerous staffing shortages, mental health problems and deteriorating buildings, some infested by bugs and black mold.

There were at least seven reports of controllers sleeping on duty and five about employees working while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The New York Times obtained summaries of the complaints through an open-records request.

Air traffic controllers, who spend hours a day glued to monitors or scanning the skies, with the lives of thousands of passengers at stake, are a last line of defense against crashes. The job comes with high stakes and intense pressure, even in the best of conditions.

Yet the conditions for many controllers are far from ideal. A nationwide staffing shortage — caused by years of employee turnover and tight budgets, among other factors — has forced many controllers to work six-day weeks and 10-hour days.

The result is a fatigued, distracted and demoralized workforce that is increasingly prone to making mistakes, according to a Times investigation. The findings are based on interviews with more than 70 current and former air traffic controllers, pilots and federal officials, as well as thousands of pages of federal safety reports and internal FAA records the Times obtained.

While the U.S. airspace is remarkably safe, potentially dangerous close calls have been happening, on average, multiple times a week this year, the Times reported in August. Some controllers say they fear a deadly crash is inevitable.

In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, there were 503 air traffic control lapses the FAA preliminarily categorized as “significant,” 65% more than in the prior year, according to internal agency reports reviewed by the Times. During that period, air traffic increased about 4%.

A database of aviation safety issues is peppered with recent mistakes by exhausted controllers. A controller at the air traffic control center in the Jacksonville, Florida, area instructed one airliner to turn into the path of another, later blaming being overworked and fatigued. A controller at a facility that monitors the skies above Southern California told a plane to fly too low, attributing the lapse to being “extremely tired” after working “continuous” overtime.

“If I can make a small mistake like that, I can make a bigger one,” the controller wrote in a submission included in the database, which is maintained by NASA.

Many controllers are aviation enthusiasts who are drawn to the job because it can pay six figures. Some relish the opportunity to earn more by working overtime.

But the Times found the combination of six-day workweeks and round-the-clock schedules has caused controllers to develop physical and mental health problems. Many avoid seeking professional help because doing so might jeopardize the medical clearances they need to work. Some turn to sleeping pills or alcohol to cope. Others resign or retire.

The FAA estimated more than 1,400 controllers — or about 10% of the total workforce — would depart this fiscal year.

Jeannie Shiffer, an FAA spokesperson, said the agency “maintains the safest, most complex and busiest airspace in the world.” She added, “The nation absolutely needs more air traffic controllers, and growing the workforce will result in better working conditions and more flexibility.”

Ever since the Reagan administration replaced thousands of striking controllers, the agency has struggled to keep pace with waves of retirements. The problem grew worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the FAA slowed training of new controllers.

For the current fiscal year, the FAA sought $117 million to train controllers and hire 1,800 new ones.

Yet training is difficult; many aspiring controllers fail. The FAA’s hiring plan is expected to have “a negligible improvement over today’s understaffed levels,” with a net increase of fewer than 200 controllers by 2032, the National Airspace System Safety Review Team, a group of experts appointed by the agency, said in a November report.

From 2011 to 2022, the number of fully certified controllers declined more than 9%, even though traffic increased. Based on targets set by the FAA and the union representing controllers, 99% of the nation’s air traffic control sites are understaffed.

To help fill that gap, controllers at 40% of the facilities worked six-day weeks at least once a month last year, according to the controllers union. The number of overtime hours clocked by controllers nearly tripled over the past decade, according to FAA data.

The Jacksonville air traffic control center is one of the country’s busiest. Yet it has only 207 controllers, below the target of 298 set by the FAA and the controllers union.

The toll on safety has become apparent.

There was the close call caused by the fatigued controller, which occurred in April. And in a confidential safety report last year, a Jacksonville controller described hyperventilating and struggling to stand after two hours of directing heavy plane traffic.

“We have recently had a heart attack, multiple panic attacks (including my own), people losing their medicals due to depression and some that just outright quit the FAA because it has gotten so bad,” the controller wrote. “Who knows how many other stress-induced physical and mental issues are happening that we don’t even know about yet,” the controller added. “This place is breaking people. We need help. I’ll say it again, SOS!!”

At a Senate hearing in November, Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the shortage of air traffic controllers, coupled with mandatory overtime, had become a threat to aviation safety.

In interviews and complaints submitted to the FAA, air traffic employees warned that they and their colleagues were buckling.

— One complaint described a controller “caught sleeping on operational positions numerous times.” Another described two controllers falling asleep “while providing air traffic services.”

— An employee “physically assaulted one controller, verbally assaulted another controller,” who began to cry, and then shoved a chair at someone. Other hotline reports also detailed physical and verbal attacks.

— Several controllers reported that co-workers appeared unstable, with one “showing extreme signs of mental problems.”

— Controllers in one location were reported for “using alcohol and illegal drugs while on position” directing traffic. Another described the “strong odor of alcohol” on multiple air traffic employees.

— One controller who worked in Colorado and elsewhere said she consumed up to nine vodka drinks a night to deal with trouble sleeping and recurrent panic attacks her doctor attributed, in part, to her job.

Shiffer, the FAA spokesperson, said the agency investigates all hotline complaints and acts on credible ones.

Controllers said they had been reluctant to seek help for physical and mental health problems because of the FAA’s rules requiring medical clearances.

The guidelines, which are designed to ensure controllers are mentally and physically sound, prohibit them from taking certain medications that can cause drowsiness or other side effects. The rules also disqualify controllers with certain medical conditions from working.

One unintended consequence, numerous controllers said, is that they avoid taking necessary medications or resort to alcohol or drugs.

Shiffer said the agency took controllers’ health seriously, including by offering free counseling.

Ashley Smith had worked for more than a decade as a controller in the Atlanta area.

In January 2022, an error by a controller in Atlanta caused two Delta airliners to get dangerously close, according to internal FAA safety reports. A cockpit collision alert prompted one plane’s pilots to quickly climb. In a review, the FAA acknowledged fatigue might have been a factor, given the controller’s schedule had included two overtime shifts in each of the previous three weeks.

A few weeks after the close call, Smith sent an email to Tim Arel, a senior FAA air traffic official. She detailed how multiple recent near misses in Atlanta had involved controllers who had repeatedly pulled overtime shifts.

Arel responded the next day, acknowledging the agency faced staffing issues.

Three months later, Smith resigned, convinced that nothing would ever improve.

“They are kicking the can down the road,” she said.

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