L.A. Times: LAX Air Traffic Controllers Are Exhausted

The air traffic controllers union at LAX says it needs more controllers. Photo: Motohide Miwa/Flickr (Creative Commons.) 

The air traffic controllers union at LAX says it needs more controllers. Photo: Motohide Miwa/Flickr (Creative Commons.) 

Are air traffic controllers overworked at Los Angeles International Airport?

The Los Angeles Times asked that question Wednesday. "The dropout rate for trainees has been as high as 60%, and many controllers routinely work more than five days a week, raising concerns about fatigue," the newspaper's Dan Weikel wrote.

He continued:

The FAA and union leaders attribute most of the problem at LAX to three major things: deep congressional budget cuts, an unexpectedly heavy rate of retirements and the complexities of maneuvering hundreds of commercial planes a day — from regional carriers to international jumbo jets — around a relatively small, 3,500-acre airfield surrounded by urban development.

Both the FAA and the controller's union say passengers should not be alarmed and that LAX is safe. But the union leader told the Times the LAX tower probably needs 52 certified controllers, plus 10 trainees, to have a reliable operation staffed by rested employees. But Weikel says the tower now has only 39 controllers, plus 11 trainees. 

It is standard practice for a union chief to fight for more jobs. But in my last job, as airports and airlines reporter for the Los Angeles News Group, I often spoke with this union leader, Mike Foote, and I found him to be a straight shooter. If he says controllers are overworked and exhausted, they probably are. 

"We are not saying the sky is falling or an accident is imminent," Foote told the Times. "But fatigue is a real thing. We are tired, and we have been grinding this out for years."

This is not the first time controller fatigue has been an issue. A study released last summer said controllers everywhere struggle with being tired on the job, CNN reported. 

The investigators queried 3,268 air traffic controllers about their schedules and sleep habits, in addition to conducting a study of sleep patterns of 211 of them.

Among the key findings: Two in 10 made significant on-the-job errors (like planes flying too close together) the previous year, most of which controllers blamed on fatigue.

Moreover, roughly a third of controllers characterized fatigue as a "high" or "extreme" safety risk.