Flight Risk – The New York Times

by Pelican Press
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The U.S. has not had a fatal plane crash involving a commercial airline in more than 14 years — an incredible safety achievement.

But the elaborate system that keeps planes from crashing is struggling. In recent years, air traffic controllers, who guide planes out of harm’s way, have suffered a staff shortage. Out of 313 air traffic control facilities nationwide, just three as of May met staff targets set by the Federal Aviation Administration and the union representing controllers.

Aviation officials worry the shortage is leading to close calls, in which planes nearly crash. There were at least 46 near misses involving commercial airlines last month, according to an investigation by my colleagues Sydney Ember and Emily Steel that published this morning. Those close calls are still a small fraction of the nearly 1.4 million flights in the U.S. each month, and it is not clear whether the rate is increasing.

But any close call is dangerous, potentially leading to a fatal crash that breaks America’s safety streak. As a spokesman for the F.A.A. said, “One close call is one too many.” The agency’s goal is to reduce the number of such near misses to zero. Staff shortages make that harder.

“The controllers we’ve talked to take real pride in their job, and they work really hard to make sure these planes are safe,” Emily told me. “But they’re worried that the circumstances around their jobs could make them slip up and that those mistakes could be very dangerous.”

What is behind the shortage? Part of the problem goes back decades: In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan fired thousands of air traffic controllers who were on strike. The F.A.A. then hired new controllers. Many retired when they became eligible to do so 20 years later. And now, another 20 years later, another wave of controllers is retiring.

Chronic disinvestment in government services is another cause. Over the past decade, the number of fully trained controllers has fallen 10 percent, while airport traffic has increased 5 percent. The F.A.A. has asked for more money to increase hiring. Even if the agency receives those funds, it will take time to hire new controllers and train them.

In the meantime, the U.S. risks more close calls. Some in aviation worry it’s only a matter of time before the overworked system fails to stop a deadly crash.

“Aviation officials will say that we have the safest system in the world,” Sydney said. “But underlying that success are risks and issues that deserve attention.”

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