Aviation experts who examined the Federal Aviation Administration’s safety record say the agency needs better staffing, equipment and technology to cope with a surge in the most serious close calls between planes.
The group said Wednesday that the margin of safety in the nation’s airspace is eroding and will get worse if nothing is done.
The outside experts tied most of the FAA’s challenges to inadequate and inconsistent funding. They issued a 52-page report — while Congress raced to avoid a partial government shutdown — and said that the FAA should be insulated from annual funding battles in Washington.
The six-member group was headed by former FAA administrator Michael Huerta and included the most recent past chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents and makes safety recommendations.
“The challenges facing the FAA developed over many years,” Huerta told reporters. “There are no easy, short-term fixes for many of these challenges.”
New FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said the agency will review the panel’s recommendations “to help us pursue our goal of zero serious close calls.”
Whitaker was confirmed last month, ending a 19-month run during which the FAA lacked a Senate-approved leader.
The FAA has about 1,000 fewer fully certified controllers than it had 11 years ago, according to the report. Hiring fell by nearly half during the pandemic, and the agency’s training center in Oklahoma City is a “bottleneck,” the group concluded.
“The FAA has made limited efforts to ensure adequate air traffic controller staffing at critical air traffic control facilities,” the experts added. The worst shortages are at key facilities in New York and Florida, which led the FAA to pressure airlines to reduce flights in the New York City area this summer and fall.
Controllers are also working more overtime, which “introduces risk” into the nation’s airspace and leads to more absenteeism, lower productivity and fatigue, the panel said. Sometimes supervisors fill in when they should be supervising instead, the group wrote.
The FAA’s aging technology led to an outage in January that briefly caused flights to be grounded nationwide.
“The age and condition of FAA facilities and equipment are elevating system risk to unsustainable levels, even before considering losses in efficiency from outdated technology,” the panel wrote.
The FAA announced the panel after several close calls including one in February in which a FedEx cargo plane cleared to land flew about 100 feet (30 meters) over a Southwest Airlines jet that was cleared to take off from the same runway in Austin, Texas. In August, a private plane and a Southwest jet narrowly avoided colliding in San Diego.