Air Traffic Controllers in Israel Say They Are Collapsing From Exhaustion

Controller who warned about his situation was suspended after being involved in a flight safety incident.

Zohar Blumenkrantz
Zohar Blumenkrantz
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An air traffic controller.
An air traffic controller.Credit: AP
Zohar Blumenkrantz
Zohar Blumenkrantz

An air traffic controller who had twice warned his superiors that he was exhausted from having spent too much time in the control tower was suspended from work after being involved in a flight safety incident.

The serious shortage of controllers at Ben-Gurion Airport, which has had a negative impact on safety, was exposed in the Tel Aviv Labor Court Thursday during a hearing that was actually was about a different problem – the airport’s shortage of operations workers.

The flight safety incident, in which a vehicle crossed a runway while a plane was nearing it for landing, occurred two weeks ago on Friday. The air traffic controller was in the control tower after having worked six shifts in eight days.

When he first saw the work schedule, he had complained to his supervisors about the workload and asked to do one shift less. But despite asking twice, he did not receive an answer.

That Friday, a fire broke out east of the Trans-Israel Highway (Route 6). Four firefighting planes were in the air, and Ben-Gurion Airport, because of its proximity to the blaze, was forced to operate in a non-routine fashion, with flights landing on Runway 21 from north to south and taking off on Runway 26. Such a situation requires additional staff, and the controller was forced to man several stations at the same time.

At one point, he gave a vehicle permission to cross the runway even though a passenger plane was in the process of landing. Suddenly, an alarm sounded in the control tower warning of the potential danger, and the controller was suspended from work. He is now undergoing a retraining and testing process.

Air traffic controllers told TheMarker that this was not an exceptional occurrence, but a chronic problem stemming from the shortage of controllers in the tower at Ben-Gurion. The controllers said they are forced to work 240 hours a month, even though the limit is supposed to be 170 hours.

The situation is unbearable, and it’s an invitation to errors caused by exhaustion, they said. They added that their superiors are aware of the situation and the potential danger.

Judge Hadass Yahalom, deputy president of the Tel Aviv Labor Court, was surprised by the information the suspended controller presented in court, and recommended that the parties leave the issue of the controllers’ exhaustion for another session.

The Israel Airports Authority said that “The controllers’ shifts include rest periods built into the shifts in order to maintain the controllers’ alertness.” It added that the incident in question is being investigated by the Transportation Ministry’s chief investigator for air safety and “the appropriate bodies in the IAA,” and the findings have not yet been released.

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