An outside team of aviation experts has released an urgent list of safety recommendations for the Federal Aviation Administration in order to avoid “future serious incidents or accidents” within the nation’s aviation system.
The report released Wednesday by the National Airspace System (NAS) Safety Review Team points to staffing shortages, aging technology and equipment, and inadequate agency funding as contributors to a rising number of safety incidents at airports within the last year, including several near-misses between aircraft.
The FAA established the independent six-member team in April following these incidents, as a means to determine ways to improve safety and reliability in the air traffic system.
An air traffic control tower is seen at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. The report released Wednesday by the National Airspace System Safety Review Team suggested ways to solve staffing shortages, particularly among air traffic control specialists.
“While there are no easy, short-term fixes to the challenges in the system, addressing risk in the NAS requires urgent action by all stakeholders,” the 52-page report concludes.
The panel’s members include former FAA administrator Michael Huerta, former NASA administrator Charles Bolden, and former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Robert L. Sumwalt.
The FAA said it welcomes the report and that it will review the recommendations.
“We appreciate the team’s time and expertise to help us pursue our goal of zero serious close calls,” FAA Administrator Michael G. Whitaker, who was confirmed by the Senate last month, said in a statement.
One issue highlighted in the report is an ongoing staffing shortage among air traffic control specialists, which the panel notes has resulted in “fewer eyes on the airspace” and a heightened risk of accidents and flight delays.
Overtime among air traffic control specialists as a result of this shortage is at a “historically high level and increasing,” leading to absenteeism, lower productivity, fatigue and possible mental health concerns, the report states.
Risks associated with staffing shortages are further compounded, the report adds, when there are system failures and outages due to aging technology. The work of air traffic controllers becomes “significantly more burdensome and complex as they route traffic around these outages or reduce the number of aircraft flying through the airspace, causing delays due to traffic management initiatives to manage risk.”
The panel suggested changes to the FAA Academy’s certification program in order to boost success rates and reduce training times, without lowering quality standards.
One suggestion offered is increasing the use of high-fidelity simulator training, which would require hardware and software upgrades. The report notes that there haven’t been upgrades to the system since 2016 due to funding and an active software contract.
“A healthy, sustainable NAS must be fully funded, staffed, and equipped with the proper processes, infrastructure, and technologies,” the report states.