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LAX Air Traffic Controllers Are Overworked And Exhausted

A Spirit Airlines plane at LAX (Photo by Aero Icarus via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
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LAX's air traffic controllers are fatigued from being overworked at the country's second-busiest airport, and that could be a problem.

Our bustling international airport requires highly trained air traffic controllers, who oversee the traffic from the top of a control tower and direct all the plane traffic that comes through. The problem is that there is a massive shortage of air traffic controllers—not just in Los Angeles, but throughout the nation, the L.A. Times reports. Many LAX controllers are working more than five days a week, and overtime hours have increased by up to 2,000 percent over the last decade. Even veterans in the business are asking to be transferred to other airports that aren't as busy.

"It's gotten worse," Mike Foote, an LAX air traffic controller and local representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn, tells the Times. "We are not saying the sky is falling or an accident is imminent. But fatigue is a real thing. We are tired, and we have been grinding this out for years. It is in the best interest of everyone, especially the flying public, that the staffing and overtime issues get resolved."

There are a few factors in play that have caused this shortage of air traffic controllers at LAX, including "deep congressional budget cuts, an unexpectedly heavy rate of retirements and the complexities of maneuvering hundreds of commercial planes a day," Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and union leaders say.

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At a National Air Traffic Controllers Association news conference last month, officials said that the shortage of controllers is at a critical crisis point that could lead to flight delays throughout the country, according to NBC News. And they claimed that the FAA didn't meet its hiring goals for controllers for five straight years.

FAA officials told the Times that they're working on trying to attract more controllers to work at LAX. Since LAX is more complex on account of the amount of air traffic, they require controllers to be certified at other airports first as well as pass LAX's training program. They've worked on streamlining the training and are offering cash incentives for controllers who transfer.

Officials from the union that represents air traffic control workers say that safety isn't a concern, though the chronic fatigue from the long schedules is an issue. However, the National Transportation Safety Board tells the Times that understaffing and excessive overtime could be a safety issue, as they've found some instances of mistakes, like aircraft being too close to planes that are moving.

NASA conducted a study for the FAA, revealing that controllers' work schedules were causing them to suffer from chronic fatigue. The study concluded with, "Chronic fatigue may be considered to pose a significant risk to controller alertness, and hence to the safety of the ATC (air traffic control) system." According to Reuters, "Nearly two in 10 controllers had committed significant errors—such as bringing planes too close together—and more than half said the errors were due to fatigue." However, the study was kept under wraps for four years. It wasn't until after the AP reported on the findings in August that the FAA released the study.

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