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Safety in the skies: Air traffic control staffing shortages blamed for 'close calls' at airports, new report shows

Air traffic control staffing shortages blamed for 'close calls' at airports, new report shows
Air traffic control staffing shortages blamed for 'close calls' at airports, new report shows 03:32

BALTIMORE - Air traffic control staffing shortages are to blame for dangerous close calls at airports nationwide, a new report shows.

WJZ Investigator Mike Hellgren combed through a federal database and did not find any recent complaints involving BWI Marshall.

However, the air traffic control shortage is a serious problem nationwide, with mandatory overtime required in an already stressful job. 

Growing concern over the safety of air travel following a more than 40 percent rise in close calls from 23 to 16 over the past year, and just 11 a decade ago. 

A new New York Times report calls air traffic controller shortages dangerous.

"It's a very difficult job, and here's the other problem, when you got staffing issues that we have now, then there's the concept of overtime," said Peter Greenberg, CBS News Travel editor. "You don't want any air traffic controller working overtime. You wouldn't want your pilot to work overtime. But, they're doing it."

WJZ reported on a near-miss at BWI Marshall last January where an ambulance came within half of a football field of colliding with a Southwest Airlines plane. But, that was because a medic misheard commands.

"Southwest 471 switching over. What was the issue there with the ambulance?" the pilot asked air traffic control.

"We actually told them to hold short. We're going to investigate that," air traffic control responded.

One month later, in Boston, a Jet Blue pilot almost hit a small plane in its path. A photo shows the close call from the cockpit. 

And that same month, in Austin, Texas, a FedEx cargo plane nearly collided with a packed Southwest jet. 

"It only takes one missed warning to become a tragedy, one missed warning to destroy public confidence in a system that has been built over decades," said Jennifer Homendy, the National Transportation Safety Board chair.  "These incidents must serve as a wake-up call before something more catastrophic occurs. Our safety system is showing clear signs of strain that we cannot ignore."

At a congressional hearing last month, the head of The National Air Traffic Controllers Association warned efforts to increase staff are falling short with longer workweeks and mandatory overtime the norm.

"Several of our facilities require six-day workweeks and 10-hour days every single week," said Rich Santa, President of the National Air Traffic Controller Association. "Air traffic control is already a highly stressful position. Working 200 hours per month layers on significant fatigue."

Our review of a federal database shows no recent complaints at BWI Marshall.

"When you have to work long, long hours beyond what you normally do, you get fatigued, you make mistakes, but we haven't seen that here," said Joe Handelman, an aviation enthusiast who often takes photos of the planes at BWI.

Handelman said that despite the shortages, he still feels safe when he flies.

"I would not hesitate to get on an airplane and fly anywhere in the U.S.," Handelman said. 

The NTSB chair said that while we have the safest skies in the world, just one collision, one incident would undermine the entire system. 

About 1,400 air traffic controllers are set to leave their jobs this fiscal year. 

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