Japan’s air traffic controllers’ union calls for increased staffing following tragic crash at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport

Japan’s air traffic controllers’ union calls for increased staffing following a Haneda airport crash; concerns were raised over safety amidst declining air traffic controllers.

A labour union representing air traffic controllers in Japan has issued a call for a “significant increase” in staffing levels to enhance safety protocols at airports, following a tragic crash at Tokyo’s Haneda airport last month. The statement, released by the chair of the transport workers’ union executive committee on Tuesday, did not attribute staffing deficiencies to the January 2 collision between a Japan Airlines (JAL) jet and a smaller Coast Guard turboprop.

An ongoing investigation is probing the runway collision at the world’s third-busiest airport, where all 379 passengers on board the Airbus A350 passenger jet survived, while five out of six crew members on the smaller Coast Guard aircraft lost their lives. Control tower transcripts have been released, revealing that the Coast Guard plane was instructed to head to a holding area on a taxiway near the runway as the JAL plane prepared to land. However, questions persist regarding why the smaller aircraft proceeded onto the runway apparently unnoticed.

Masato Yamazaki in his statement remarked about the need for increased air traffic controllers, expressing concerns about the crash’s cause and how it could adversely affect the mental well-being of controllers.

Following the accident, authorities implemented emergency measures, directing air traffic control towers at Haneda and other airports nationwide to continuously monitor radar systems for potential runway intrusions. Despite hopes that the ministry would recruit additional personnel to fulfil this role, Yamazaki highlighted the strain placed on already stretched staff.

Yamazaki noted that despite repeated appeals to the government for more staff, only partial approvals have been granted in recent years, despite the increased workload on controllers. He emphasized of it not being enough to ensure safety.

The Japanese transport ministry was not immediately available for comment on the union’s concerns. Notably, other countries, including the United States and France, are also grappling with shortages of air traffic control staff, which airlines argue pose risks to aviation safety.

Data from the transport ministry indicates a decline in the number of air traffic control staff in Japan to its lowest level in at least 19 years last year. This trend has persisted despite fluctuations in flight volumes during the COVID-19 pandemic, with each operator in Japan handling nearly 7,000 flights in 2019, up from approximately 4,600 in 2004, according to ministry records.