Experts to FAA: Understaffing, outdated technology is eroding safety

An increasing reliance on overtime to staff air traffic control facilities and outdated technology is putting aviation safety at risk, a panel of experts assembled by the Federal Aviation Administration said in a report Wednesday.

The group, which includes former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt, said the agency must move quickly to boost hiring and overhaul its aging systems.

“Air traffic controllers who must climb stairs to the top of a 200-foot air traffic control tower due to an elevator outage may find working equipment when they finally arrive, but they are not in the best physical or mental condition to perform their duties ,” the group wrote. “These challenges inject risk into the system.”

The panel was assembled as part of the FAA’s response to near misses involving airliners earlier this year that alarmed the airline industry. Many of the report’s conclusions reflect testimony in recent congressional hearings and findings from the Department of Transportation’s inspector general.

Michael Whitaker, the FAA’s new administrator, said he applauded the panel’s work and would review the findings.

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“We appreciate the team’s time and expertise in helping us pursue our goal of zero serious close calls,” he said in a statement.

The FAA recorded 23 of the most serious kinds of close calls in the past year, and the NTSB is investigating more than half a dozen incidents, including a collision between two private jets at a Houston airport last month. Jennifer Homendy, board chairwoman, said after a Senate committee hearing that the airline industry needs to act quickly.

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“All the red flags are there,” Homendy told reporters. “We are ringing the alarm bells and we need action.”

The FAA is trying to boost the hiring of air traffic controllers, but Wednesday’s report makes clear that its current plans are unlikely to lead to a significant increase in the number of air traffic controllers anytime soon, calling the agency’s academy a “bottleneck.”

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“The hiring plan represents an insignificant improvement over today’s understaffed levels,” the report says.

The panel also said the agency is too reliant on outdated technology and has failed to gain efficiencies from a major technology overhaul known as NextGen.

“There is a limit to how far the challenges of inadequate, outdated and unreliable facilities, equipment and technology can be managed to preserve safety by sacrificing efficiency,” the panel wrote.

This is a developing story and will be updated.