Fatigue in US air travel system: It's not just air traffic controllers

Air travel is safe (and most air traffic controllers don’t nod off), but there are warning signs aviation officials must grapple with.

Cliff Owen/AP
A passenger jet flies past the control tower at Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport, scene of two ‘unresponsive tower’ incidents in late March.

A series of high-profile events, from near misses in the air to sleeping air-traffic controllers on the ground, have rattled air travelers nationwide. They worry that the US aviation system is becoming increasingly overstretched. But the incidents are less a sign of an immediate crisis than a glimpse of the challenges that lie ahead as a generation of traffic controllers retire and air traffic continues to rise, aviation analysts say.

They note that accidents in US skies have not increased. Measured in fatalities, the nation’s airways remain at historically high levels of safety. But the events serve as an important reminder that constant vigilance is needed to maintain that track record on safety. Among the warning signs:

•A year ago there was a string of close calls in which aircraft passed within a mile, and sometimes much less, of one another. That’s an alarming proximity, given that planes travel at such high speeds.

•More recently, a surprising maintenance worry emerged when a hole opened in the roof of a Boeing 737 departing from Phoenix, suggesting that the planes can develop structural weaknesses much sooner than engineers had realized.

•Then came reports of traffic controllers asleep or distracted while on the job, which prompted a call by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a “top to bottom review” of traffic-control systems.

Indeed, analysts say, the difficulties for US aviation go beyond just a few tired controllers on the late shift and suggest that it’s time for the US aviation system to upgrade everything from training to communications equipment.

“They’ve got a couple layers of challenges” at the FAA alone, says William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, an independent group that draws support from the aviation industry.

One is that safety advances often hinge on navigating political hurdles. For example, aviation experts cite scientific research suggesting that allowing a nap by traffic controllers on the midnight shift would improve safety by easing fatigue. But that idea bumps up against the political instinct to call any sleep during a shift unacceptable.

Industry groups, rightly or wrongly, can play a heavy role through lobbying. Airline companies, citing what they say will be high costs, have opposed rules designed to ensure better rest for cockpit crews in the wake of a Buffalo, N.Y., crash (attributed partly to fatigue) that killed 50 people in 2009.

Another challenge lies within FAA ranks: trying to uphold high standards within a large and fast-changing workforce. In addition to a spate of air-traffic controllers found sleeping on the overnight shift, one in Ohio was censured for watching a film on a DVD player while he was on duty.

“There is a concern that there has been a fall-off in professionalism,” says Mr. Voss, who has worked as a controller. He characterizes traffic controllers as “bright people who can get out of hand if not carefully managed.”

A huge retirement wave is under way in control towers. One generation, which arrived in the early 1980s after President Reagan fired striking controllers, is departing. Voss says he expects the newcomers to do well. But it’s a big task to ensure that the incoming ranks are well trained.

Some aviation experts are encouraged by the actions of FAA administrator Randy Babbitt, as well as his background as a commercial pilot and union leader.

“They finally have an FAA administrator who knows what an airplane is, knows what air-traffic control is, and knows what management is,” says Michael Boyd of the aviation consulting firm Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo.

Mr. Babbitt, he says, has moved quickly in response to recent problems, enlisting the controllers’ union to align with him on a revised policy for rest between shifts and late-night scheduling. The agency is also putting a second controller on duty at 27 airports that had been staffed by just one controller during midnight shifts.

More broadly, Babbitt is seeking to build a new culture of open reporting of problems before they result in fatal accidents.

“It’s only when people know that they can raise their hand – ‘There’s a problem here’ – that’s when we’re going to make the big leaps forward in safety,” he said in a speech soon after taking the job in 2009.

“I’m a huge fan of that approach,” says Sid McGuirk, who teaches traffic control at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Some air-safety experts argue that the FAA’s initial response, mandating nine hours off between shifts rather than eight, won’t be enough to significantly reduce fatigue.

But, more broadly, much is going right. In recent years accidents have caused just 0.01 death per 100 million passenger miles traveled by commercial airlines, making it a safer mode of travel than car, bus, or train. The corresponding number for cars, for example, is 0.75.

Some of the incidents that have grabbed headlines haven’t compromised safety. It wasn’t appropriate that a plane carrying first lady Michelle Obama got within three miles of a military cargo jet as the planes approached for landing near Washington on April 19. But the aircraft weren’t in immediate danger. Similarly, although air-traffic controllers in other incidents shouldn’t have been asleep, pilots have procedures for late-night landings at “uncontrolled” towers.

And despite the hole that ripped open on a Southwest Airlines flight, most aviation experts don’t see so-called “metal fatigue” on aging aircraft as a major safety hazard. For one thing, the typical US airliner hasn’t been through nearly as many takeoffs and landings (called pressurization cycles) as that particular 737.

Still, amid federal budget pressures and forecasts for US air traffic to double by 2031, there’s a strong case for the industry and regulators to keep pushing for a stronger culture of safety. Alongside human professionalism, that means implementing a new generation of communications systems.

Satellite tracking and other technology hold the potential for boosting safety and routing jets for greater fuel efficiency, but the FAA’s plans for “NextGen” systems have been fraught with delays and questions about whether the proposals will deliver the expected gains at a reasonable cost.

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