Drunk and Asleep on the Job: Air Traffic Controllers Pushed to the Brink

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By Ketrin Agustine

A nationwide shortage of controllers has resulted in an exhausted and demoralized work force that is increasingly prone to making dangerous mistakes.

One air traffic controller went into work drunk this summer and joked about “making big money buzzed.” Another routinely smoked marijuana during breaks. A third employee threatened violence and then “aggressively pushed” a colleague who was directing airplanes.

The incidents were extreme examples, but they fit into a pattern that reveals glaring vulnerabilities in one of the most important protective layers of the nation’s vaunted aviation safety system.

In the past two years, air traffic controllers and others have submitted hundreds of complaints to a Federal Aviation Administration hotline describing issues like dangerous staffing shortages, mental health problems and deteriorating buildings, some infested by bugs and black mold.

There were at least seven reports of controllers sleeping when they were on duty and five about employees working while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The New York Times obtained summaries of the complaints through an open-records request.

Air traffic controllers, who spend hours a day glued to monitors or scanning the skies with the lives of thousands of passengers at stake, are a last line of defense against crashes. The job comes with high stakes and intense pressure, even in the best of conditions.

Yet the conditions for many controllers are far from ideal. A nationwide staffing shortage — caused by years of employee turnover and tight budgets, among other factors — has forced many controllers to work six-day weeks and 10-hour days.

There Are Fewer Air Traffic Controllers


A chart showing that from 2011 to 2022, the number of air traffic controllers fell by 9.1 percent.

Drunk and Asleep on the Job: Air Traffic Controllers Pushed to the Brink

Percent change in the number of air traffic

controllers since 2011

+2% change from 2011

–2%

–4

–6

–9.1%

2011 to

2022

–8

–10

–12

’12

’14

’16

’18

’20

’22

(FISCAL YEAR)

+2% change from 2011

Percent change in the number

of air traffic controllers since 2011

–2%

–4

–6

–8

–9.1%

2011 to

2022

–10

–12

2012

2014

2016

2018

2020

2022

(FISCAL YEAR)

Source: National Air Traffic Controllers Association

By Ella Koeze

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