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DOL Decision Helps NATCA Fight for Traumatic Stress Claims

Controllers who have filed workers compensation claims following an air traffic event such as a near miss or an airplane crash have often faced an uphill battle during the claims process. In order to obtain workers compensation benefits, the employee must prove that he or she was injured in the course of performing their ATC duties.

It would seem obvious that if you are on position, plugged in and talking to airplanes, that you would be considered in the performance of your ATC duties if you suffer a traumatic stress condition as a result of an air traffic event. However, the FAA has often contested these claims, asserting that there was no actual risk of a collision or that the controller was not directly responsible for the aircraft at the time of the event, and was therefore not injured in the performance of duty. This has caused confusion, delay, and unnecessary litigation in the Department of Labor (DOL) claims process, since DOL claims examiners are often unfamiliar with ATC work.

NATCA has been working with the FAA to resolve this problem by developing joint guidance clarifying that air traffic controllers work in teams and often have shared responsibility for the safety of aircraft, even when they are not the controller who is directly talking to the airplane at the time of the event. In December 2012, the DOL issued an important decision clarifying the issue of performance of duty in the context of air traffic control. The case involved a controller from Miami Center who noticed that two airplanes that were being handed off to his airspace were in conflict because one airplane appeared to be overtaking the other, a slower airplane, due to airspeed. The Miami Center controller asked the radar assist controller to contact Havana Center and have them correct the developing conflict. Havana Center refused, and when the two airplanes reached Miami Center airspace, the Miami Center controller corrected the conflict. In the course of working his radar position during this event, the controller experienced a traumatic stress injury.

However, because the Agency claimed that there was no imminent risk of a collision and that the controller was not “operationally responsible” for the aircraft that were still in Havana Center airspace, the claim was denied on the grounds that the controller was not injured in the performance of duty. The controller requested reconsideration several times and years passed before the claim was finally heard on appeal by the DOL. Concerning whether there was an imminent risk of a crash between the two aircraft that were on a converging course, the DOL rejected this argument as irrelevant to whether the controller was in the performance of his duty at the time he was injured. The DOL emphasized that the injured controller was not simply a bystander, but was plugged-in, on position, and working his assigned duties at the time of the event.

Concerning whether the controller was operationally responsible for the aircraft, the DOL found that the controller was in fact required to monitor the aircraft, notice the conflict, and attempt corrective action even while the two airplanes were still technically in Havana Center airspace. The DOL noted that the Agency had previously issued a disciplinary action against the same controller for not attempting to correct a similar operational conflict when aircraft were still in Havana Center airspace, indicating that the Miami Center controller had shared operational responsibility for the safety of the aircraft. The DOL stated:

With respect to operational responsibility, this was not a situation where appellant was simply standing near the radar and witnessed a stressful incident. Appellant was working his assigned duty monitoring live aircraft traffic on radar. As part of those duties, he observed a potential conflict between two aircraft and attempted to resolve the conflict. The record contains a disciplinary letter regarding a November 2009 incident that specifically noted that it was appellant’s responsibility to take action to resolve a potential conflict, even if Havana Center should have taken action. The disciplinary letter clearly indicated that he had an obligation to take action even if the ultimate responsibility for action was with another radar center. Appellant was advised that it was his responsibility to ensure separation between the aircraft. He was on duty and monitoring radar. Appellant was performing his regular duties as an air traffic controller … when the potential collision arose, a situation he took effort to remedy.

This is an important decision for NATCA’s effort to improve the claims process for controllers who are injured in the course of duty because it highlights that controllers often have shared responsibility for the safety of aircraft. The decision confirms NATCA’s longstanding effort to explain that a controller may or may not be in direct radio communication with the aircraft, and the aircraft may or may not be flying in the controller’s assigned airspace at the time of the event; however, if the controller has an obligation to monitor the aircraft for potential conflicts or other unsafe situations, and has an obligation to take action to correct the unsafe operation, then the controller is performing their duties for purposes of workers compensation. If the controller can be subject to discipline for not monitoring the aircraft, noticing potential conflict and taking action to resolve the unsafe situation, then surely he or she should be understood to have shared responsibility for that operation for purposes of workers compensation.

The reality is controllers work in teams and are obligated to take action to prevent an unsafe situation when they notice one developing, regardless of whether they are in direct radio communication with the aircraft. NATCA will continue to work with the Agency to educate FAA managers and FAA employees who work in the FAA Headquarters Workers Compensation office regarding what controllers do and how these important issues impact the controllers’ right to workers compensation benefits when a traumatic stress injury occurs.