Could air traffic controller shortage have impact on safety?

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ByDan Noyes via KGO logo
Saturday, October 13, 2018
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Air traffic controllers are overworked and in short supply. ABC7's I-Team reporter Dan Noyes investigates.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A Bay Area Congressman is warning about the shortage of air traffic controllers at San Francisco International, and the potential impact on safety for anyone who flies.

This story started with a tip from a woman who lives in the flight path near SFO. She's worried after a chance meeting with an air traffic controller who said he's overworked, tired and stressed. She asked us to investigate.

On Friday alone, 1,400 flights took off or landed at San Francisco International. Even with all the technology in the cockpits and control tower, there's room for human error.

A United Airlines pilot radioed, "Where's this guy going?"

That was July of last year. It took a pilot on the ground to figure out that an Air Canada flight was about to land on a taxiway where four planes were waiting, instead of its assigned runway.

The United Airlines pilot continued, "He's on the taxiway."

At the last possible moment, the Air Canada pilot realized the mistake and aborted the landing, missing the planes on the ground by just a few feet -- you can see the Air Canada jet light them up.

United Airlines pilot: "Air Canada flew directly over us."

Controller: "Yeah, I saw that, guys."

"We came within ten feet of having America's greatest air disaster," Rep. Mark DeSaulnier of Contra Costa County told the I-Team.

Federal investigators placed blame squarely on the Air Canada pilots. But, the airline countered only one air traffic controller was on duty at the time, "controlling everything on the airport, he was likely overtasked." A second controller was on break. Air Canada claimed "there is a significant air traffic control threat" at SFO.

DeSaulnier, who serves on the House Transportation Committee, is concerned about the shortage of air traffic controllers -- staffing is at a 30-year low across the country.

"It takes a tragedy too often to say now we've got to fix this," DeSaulnier said. "I don't think we should wait for a tragedy."

The union president for San Francisco International's air traffic controllers tells me they have only 20 of 30 slots filled.

"The rope is stretched as thin as it's going to go," said Fred Naujoks, SFO Air Traffic Controllers Union president.

Controllers are working overtime and sixth days.

"We're working later hours into the evening," Naujoks said. "We're working early in the morning, people cover schedules across the 24-hour clock, and they're doing it on six-day weeks, so it's getting people burnt out."

The same problem is happening at the Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center, which oversees 10 percent of the earth's surface including the entire Pacific Ocean. They have just 165 controllers out of 220, and it takes years to train a controller.

Scott Conde, Oakland Center ATC Union president said, "If it takes four years to train somebody, they should be hiring my replacement today. But they're hiring the replacement for the person that left two years ago today."

Conde tells the I-Team air traffic controllers are professionals who would never put the public at risk. If a controller becomes too busy due to staffing shortages, they'll slow down the air traffic.

"We will ensure that the system is safe by metering the traffic," Conde explained. "And you will see things like air traffic control delays, so that becomes more prevalent as you have staffing shortages across the country."

ABC News Aviation Consultant John Nance said, "You start pressing the limits of fatigue, you've got something to worry about."

Nance told us from his Seattle office that long hours of overtime from staff shortages can take a toll.

"You can have a controller who slowed everything down because he or she is getting very tired," Nance said. "But now an emergency occurs and can that controller think as fast as is needed? That's where fatigue comes into it."

Just last week, several of Mark DeSaulnier's measures to prevent runway accidents were signed into law. Now he's turning to the controller shortage and the risks that presents.

"We just have to make sure we have the best people and particularly in these high-cost areas," DeSaulnier said. "There has to be a differential because of the cost of living so we're trying to do that in Congress, but we need to get more people, more qualified people in those towers as soon as possible."

The FAA declined an on-camera interview, but sent an email saying they've made steady gains in hiring new controllers and have upgraded their program to help trainees become certified more quickly. I'm posting that full statement -- along with more information and links on this issue.

FAA Statement

The FAA has made steady gains in hiring new air traffic controllers. We've exceeded our hiring goal for the last three years, bringing on 1,742 controllers in 2018*, 1,880 in 2017 and 1,680 in 2016. We continue to run successful recruitment initiatives, and have created retention and job enhancement strategies to attract and retain controllers. Additionally, we have upgraded our training program to help new controllers succeed and become certified more quickly.

We've hired 7,750 controllers in the past five years, and as of August 2018 we had 14,705 controllers on board.

* As of Sept. 18, 2018

Additional Links

National Air Traffic Controllers Association

Aviation Safety Reporting System

NASA Controller Fatigue Assessment Report

Air Canada Near Miss Information

Take a look at more stories and videos by Dan Noyes and the I-Team here.