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With close calls mounting, the FAA will require more rest for air traffic controllers

The air traffic control tower at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. Federal regulators are increasing the amount of required rest between shifts for air traffic controllers.
Michael M. Santiago
Getty Images
The air traffic control tower at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. Federal regulators are increasing the amount of required rest between shifts for air traffic controllers.

WASHINGTON — Twice in a week, an airline pilot was forced to abort a takeoff because other jets were entering an active runway.

A pair of incidents last week — one at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, the other at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport — join a growing list of close calls on runways across the country, adding to concerns about aviation safety.

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged that the agency must do more to reduce fatigue among air traffic controllers amid an ongoing staffing shortage.

"We need to address that fatigue risk," said FAA administrator Mike Whitaker during a virtual briefing with reporters on Friday.

"Coming into this position, it was pretty clear to me that fatigue was an issue. It's something I heard about at every facility I visited. It was usually one of the first issues I heard about," Whitaker said.

In response, the FAA is increasing the amount of rest time required between shifts to 10 hours, up from nine, and 12 hours of rest before an overnight shift. The changes will take effect in 90 days.

That announcement came as the FAA released a report on air traffic controller fatigue. A three-person panel of fatigue experts recommended the new rest requirements, along with a host of other suggested changes.

But the new policy could have unintended consequences, warns the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

"NATCA is concerned that with an already understaffed controller workforce, immediate application of the Administrator's new rules may lead to coverage holes in air traffic facilities' schedules," the union said in a statement. "Requiring controllers to work mandatory overtime to fill those holes would increase fatigue and make the new policy nothing more than window dressing."

There are 1,000 fewer certified air traffic controllers working today than a decade ago, according to NATCA. As a result, many air traffic facilities are short-staffed, union president Rich Santa told a Senate subcommittee in November. Mandatory overtime — including six-day workweeks and 10-hour shifts — are routine, he said.

The FAA has been working to address the staffing shortage of air traffic controllers, Whitaker said on Friday.

"We also know that we're understaffed throughout the population of controllers," Whitaker said. "So we have been doing everything within our power to increase controller hiring. We met our goal last year of 1,500 controllers, and will meet our goal this year of 1,800 controllers. And we're continuing to do everything we can to increase the numbers."

Two close calls on runways last week underscore the strain on the aviation system.

On Wednesday, a tower controller at New York's Kennedy Airport cleared a SWISS Airbus A330 jet for takeoff. At the same time, a ground controller on another frequency cleared four other jets to cross the runway, according to audio from LiveATC.net.

The SWISS jet aborted its takeoff after the pilot saw the other planes on the runway.

There was a similar close call the following day at Reagan National Airport in Virginia. An air traffic controller instructed a Southwest Airlines jet to cross runway 4, while another plane operated by JetBlue Airways was starting its takeoff on the same runway. Both jets eventually arrived at their destinations, and no serious injuries were reported.

The FAA says it is investigating both incidents.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.