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Exhausted air traffic controllers are making more mistakes on the job amid a stretched workforce doing 10-hour workdays and 6-day workweeks, report says

Air traffic control
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
  • The shortage in US air traffic controllers is not new, but it has reached a critical juncture.

  • As controllers endure lengthier workweeks, they're becoming increasingly susceptible to making mistakes, per The Times.

  • The problem is exacerbated by waves of retirements that have affected the workforce over the years.

For years, air traffic controllers have seen their ranks diminish, to the point where 10-hour days and six-day workweeks have become increasingly common among this group tasked with preserving safety in America's skies.

And the strain on controllers has led to a workforce that's become demoralized and exhausted, which in turn has led to controllers becoming increasingly susceptible to making mistakes, according to The New York Times.

The Times examined a series of complaints made to the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that regulates civil aviation in the United States, where controllers expressed concerns over dire staffing shortages, mental issues among some workers, and buildings that have become inhospitable for workers.

In the set of complaints reviewed by the newspaper, there were no fewer than seven reports where controllers were found sleeping on the job and at least five reports of controllers having signs of alcohol or drugs in their systems.

Earlier this year, The Times published a detailed report on how close calls at US airports were occurring, on average, multiple times a week — a stunning revelation given the overall safety of air travel in the US. In that report, the shortage of controllers was noted as issue that seriously threatened their ability to perform their jobs properly.

However, the nationwide shortage of air traffic controllers is not a new phenomenon.

In August 1981, then-President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, in what was a pivotal moment for the labor movement in the US. Reagan imposed a ban on the rehiring of striking controllers, but by 1986, some were permitted to reapply for their jobs. In May 1993, then-President Bill Clinton rescinded the ban on the remaining employees who had participated in the strike.

But while some of the former controllers sought their old jobs, many chose not to do so. Since that tumultuous period, waves of controllers have departed the workforce as they hit retirement age, which has led to the current strain on the workforce.

The problem was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, when a slew of controllers left their roles and the FAA scaled back on the training of new controllers due to the strict health guidelines that were in place at the time, according to The Times.

The Times this past summer noted that over the past decade, the number of trained controllers has declined by 10%, even as airline traffic went up by 5%.

Neil Burke, a former controller who worked in the New York metropolitan area, which features major facilities like John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia Airport, and Newark Liberty International Airport, told The Times that controllers in the region have long worked six days a week and for 10 hours each day.

Burke, who left his role due to a medical issue, told The Times that he found himself and others making mistakes due to the strain of the work schedule.

"What happens when you stretch a rubber band too much?" Burke said to the newspaper. "It breaks."

FAA spokeswoman Jeannie Shiffer in a statement to The Times said that the agency "maintains the safest, most complex and busiest airspace in the world."

"The nation absolutely needs more air traffic controllers, and growing the work force will result in better working conditions and more flexibility," she added.

Read the original article on Business Insider