The U.S. has an air traffic control crisis. There aren’t enough controllers, and airlines have had to offer fewer flights in the Northeast. Controllers are overworked, and the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization has mismanaged its technology investments for 20 years. That’s limited air travel capacity, created delays, and compromised safety. This doesn’t get nearly enough attention, outside of specific incidents on specific days when the system breaks down in a dramatic and visible way, as we’ve seen several times this year.
But looking at what’s going on with air traffic control in Beirut, I don’t even know what to say.
They’re facing one of the worst economic crises in the world, with their currency losing almost all of its value and 80% of the country living in poverty. During the pandemic flights to Beirut had to be stopped at night when the runway lights were stolen. A bullet pierced the cabin of a Middle East Arilines plane as it landed there last fall.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency and International Civil Aviation Organisation conducted a “pre-audit” in June, to prepare for next year’s formal Universal Safety Oversight Audit, to give them a chance to rectify problems first. They identified two issues, both problems in the United States, but it’s the details here that are scary.
- Insufficient air traffic control staffing with overworked controllers
- Lack of separation between the agency performing air traffic control duties and the agency regulating their performance
But there’s so little air traffic control staffing that they might have to “limited hours” of operation of the Beirut airport. Because they have only 15 air traffic controllers.
“There are currently only 15 certified air controllers, whereas the standard requirement would be 87,” said a source from the Lebanese civil aviation department who requested to stay anonymous.
“Air-traffic controllers have consistently faced a shortage of staff but due to the crisis, which initially resulted in major salary cuts, a number of employees made the decision to leave the country.”
This has led to very long shifts, sometimes reaching 24 hours, with air-traffic controller working five hours at a stretch without any breaks and hitting 72 to 96 hours per week, the source said.
This reporting is insane. It’s coming from an apparently reputable source but almost feels like it can’t be real, except that the nation overall is in such dire straits.
Air traffic controllers are working up to 96 hours per week there and in shifts reaching 24 hours. Instead of having four controllers and a supervisor on each shift, there’s just one controller working at a time with an assistant. And the assistants have a “deficiency in training.”
“Out of the 20, none of them hold the necessary certification to execute their duties. Their training would need at least three to four years, provided we had the training centre,” they said.
There has been talk about bringing in controllers from ICAO as an emergency measure. There are “20 qualified air-traffic controllers who successfully passed the 2018 exam” but “were not being considered for those positions” because of the delicate demographics of the country – they weren’t hired beucase most were Muslim.
Lebanese air traffic controllers are far more overworked than their counterparts in the U.S. But the other major safety complaint is exactly the same as in the U.S.: the entity providing the service (in our case, the FAA) regulates itself. And we’ve seen enough problems here to know that’s not a good idea. Thankfully our shortage of dedicated and talented controllers isn’t nearly as grave as theirs.