Airline collision close calls are on the rise partly because there's not enough people working the high-paid, high-stress job that prevents them

Airplanes keep almost hitting each other — and one reason is a shortage of workers whose job it is to make sure they don't.

A recent investigation by the New York Times found that, in July alone, there were nearly 50 almost-collisions in the US.

Earlier this month, a Southwest Airlines flight and a private jet came within 100 feet of one another on a San Diego runway. A preliminary review by the FAA determined air traffic control had cleared the Cessna jet to land on the same runway that it had previously cleared a Southwest Airlines flight to taxi to and wait for permission to take off.

The Times found — through an analysis of FAA records and a NASA aviation database — that close-call incidents like these are often the result of human error, such as mistakes made by air traffic controllers who are chronically understaffed.

The recent rise in close call incidents involving commercial airlines is in part due to a widening hole in what's called the "Swiss cheese model," a framework for ensuring safe traveling. Under the model, the idea is that the different factors that go into ensuring planes land safely all have certain weaknesses. Those vulnerabilities could include the weather, a pilot's amount of sleep, wildlife, what the pilot ate for breakfast, or other human error. When you layer enough pieces of holey cheese, and make sure the holes don't line up, it creates a solid layer of security against disaster. In this case, air traffic controllers are a key piece of cheese, making sure that the holes are caught by someone monitoring the situation on the ground. 

Except there's not enough air traffic controllers. A government audit released in June found that 77% of critical air traffic control facilities in the US are staffed below the recommended threshold.

The report concluded that the FAA "lacks a plan to address" the shortages, noting that due to training delays caused by COVID-19, the agency cannot ensure it will successfully train enough controllers in the short term.

Air traffic control is a well-paid, high risk job that requires lots of training

The shortages aren't due to a lack of interest — the FAA received over 58,000 applicants for 1,500 air traffic controller positions (which pay a median salary of nearly $128,00) last year.

But new hires can't immediately start on the job. Air traffic controllers have to go through rigorous training that can take over three years to complete. In addition, applicants must be younger than 31 years old and are required to retire by age 56.

Staffing shortages "have placed a tremendous amount of strain on air traffic controllers," Rich Santa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in a statement to Insider.

"We saw the effect that air traffic controller staffing shortages had on air travel this summer, and although there has been an increased focus on training, the hiring process to overcome the staffing shortage takes years," Santa said, adding that many air controllers are working mandatory overtime of 10-hour shifts for six days a week. "Air traffic controllers are doing an exemplary job in a very difficult situation, but this is not sustainable."

In May, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg told CNN that air traffic control needed 3,000 more workers to be fully staffed.

The FAA has hired 1,500 air traffic controllers this year and has an additional 2,600 controllers currently in training, the agency said in a statement.

Following a March safety summit with industry leaders and labor organizations, the FAA announced steps to ensure supervisors devote their full attention to the operation and airfield during peak traffic, as well as launched a series of monthly safety briefings for air traffic controllers, the agency added.

'We are seeing controllers taken out in ambulances'

Despite the FAA's recent hiring efforts and training initiatives, air traffic controllers are experiencing the impact of short staffing acutely, according to an Insider analysis of safety reports voluntarily submitted to NASA by air traffic controllers, pilots, and other aviation personnel.

At least 20 reports submitted to the database over the last two years mentioned air traffic control staffing levels as a safety issue.

"As our operations continue to grow we need more staffing to ensure controllers are not put in these positions," one air traffic controller wrote of a January 2023 incident where they were dealing with too many aircraft and unable to quickly help an aircraft with a landing issue. "We're already working 6 day workweeks with shortened breaks, and these types of safety issues require us to be at our peak."

One controller based at the Southern California TRACON, one of the busiest air traffic control facilities in the country, said they took sick leave after issuing the incorrect altitude clearance to a pilot. They cited fatigue from a lack of adequate down time as a contributing factor to the mistake.

"If I can make a small mistake like that, I can make a bigger one. I am back to work today on my 6th day. I wish I could say a recommendation would be that we don't have to work so much overtime," they wrote in a report submitted in June 2022. "It's frustrating that we are behind in hiring and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. I'm sure the continuous OT has caused some consistent fatigue."

In a report submitted in February 2022, another air traffic controller with 20 years of experience based at the Jacksonville control center said controllers are routinely working 60 hours a week and are "written up if they call in sick due to fatigue."

"We are seeing controllers taken out in ambulances and we have had more than one resign. We are putting the controllers in an unsafe situation each and every day," the controller wrote. "I have never seen the morale so low or the workforce so defeated, disgruntled and exhausted."

They continued: "Something needs to change soon because safety is compromised every single day. I am at home writing this report on my own time because I know that there will be no duty time available tomorrow and I already know that I will walk into understaffed areas."

Are you an air traffic controller dealing with understaffing? Contact these reporters at and

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