Skip to main content

Ashley Nunes is a senior research associate at Harvard Law School.

“Disturbing.” That’s how one government official described a recent safety faux-pas in the skies above Florida, when an air traffic controller managing jets near Fort Lauderdale cleared a Delta jet to approach the local airport – putting it on the same path as a Spirit flight cleared by the same controller. What resulted was a “near-miss,” industry parlance for what happens when two jetliners get too close for comfort.

Worryingly, near-misses seem on the rise, according to a New York Times investigation. Some two months before the incident in Fort Lauderdale, a similar error caused two jets to come within 200 feet of one another in the skies above Miami (jets are typically separated by at least 1,000 feet). Some three weeks before that, an air traffic controller in Texas cleared a FedEx plane to land on the same runway as a departing Southwest jet. And weeks before that, two jetliners near collided at New York’s Kennedy airport. All told, there have been more than 300 similar reports involving commercial jets over the past year.

The purported reason for these incidents is a shortage of air traffic controllers. The skies over North America, which are some of the busiest (and most profitable) in the world, are being managed by recruits who have been stretched too thin for too long: consummate professionals coerced into giving it their all and then some, in the name of air safety. In a government report, an unnamed controller agrees: “Controllers are making mistakes left and right. Fatigue is extreme … It is only a matter of time before something catastrophic happens.”

The purported solution? Why, beefing up the ranks, of course. Union representatives and their allies want more – many, many more – controllers on hand. More professionals means there’s more mental muscle to go around, the logic goes, and more mental muscle means fewer errors.

But I’m not buying it.

This is not to say that there are not serious issues confronting air traffic controllers, including fatigue. But some of those issues are actually of their own making. Controllers work schedules with ever-changing start and stop times. One such schedule – and the focus of many safety investigations – requires that five eight-hour shifts be worked during a period of 88 consecutive hours. In comparison, the average person will perform the same amount of work in just shy of 104 hours. Why squeeze more work into a shorter amount of time? Because cramming more work into a shorter period gives controllers three days off before they begin their next work cycle.

For labour unions, that’s the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. After all, dues-paying members expect value for their money, and nothing delivers value like paid time off. Never mind that this schedule requires controllers to work from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on a given day and return a few hours later to work another shift from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Yes, you read that right: Controllers direct airplanes for the better part of eight hours in the morning, take an eight-hour break, and then return to work late at night to staff what is arguably one of the most challenging professions in the world.

Air traffic unions will predictably dispute this argument. Instead, expect lots of rhetoric about how staffing shortages are real. And indeed, the shortages may be a problem. But it’s not the whole story, because staffing targets are often determined through negotiations between management and labour, rather than by science. Government and union reps get into a room and agree – in the general absence of hard data – on how many controllers are needed.

The government usually pushes for fewer controllers because their salaries put a sizable dent in the federal budget; unions push for more, because extra due-paying workers means more political clout. So, if you’re wondering how many controllers it takes to keep the skies safe, don’t expect an honest answer from either government or union officials. They don’t really know.

We could let this trend continue. We could watch elected government and union officials bicker over whether the skies are safe and to what extent, all while the number of near-misses rack up. Or we could figure out what it takes to keep the skies safe by studying the issue.

If the science says we need more controllers, I’m all for that. But from where I’m standing, there’s little to suggest that’s the case.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe