Report: Controller Fatigue Threatens Air Safety

A new published report on aviation safety by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concludes that fatigue among air traffic controllers contributed to one fatal accident last year and at least four other close calls.

In a letter addressed to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Marion Blakey and National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Patrick Forey, NTSB President Mark Rosenker stated that rapid rotation and short rest periods are the likely reasons why controllers report sleeping an average of just 6 hours before day shifts and 2 hours before midnight shifts, highlighting that “controller fatigue decreases aviation safety.”

Rosenker also noted that FAA policies and controllers' off-duty habits also may be culprits and urged changes in controller scheduling policies and practices, as well as educating the controller work force on shift work, its effects on performance and fatigue management.

Controller Fatigue Played Role in Fatal Crash

The letter pointed to the Comair flight crash in August that killed 49 people and left one person seriously injured in Lexington, Ky. The reason for the accident, according to investigators, was because the controller had cleared the plane for takeoff and the flight crew mistakenly taxied onto the wrong runway. Because the controller was running on 2 hours of sleep, he was not vigilant enough to see the plane's mistake.

“Controllers are sometimes operating in a state of fatigue because of their work schedules and poorly managed utilization of their rest periods between shifts, and that fatigue has contributed to controller errors,” Rosenker said.

The board urged FAA and NATCA to revise work schedules "to provide rest periods that are long enough for controllers to obtain sufficient restorative sleep" and to modify shift rotations "to minimize disrupted sleep patterns."

FAA: Employees Should Rest Before Work

FAA spokesman Les Dorr told OccupationalHazards.com that the agency will look at NTSB's recommendations very closely as well as FAA's current policies and will respond directly to the agency within 90 days. However, he emphasized that this “was one of the safest periods of aviation history.”

In addition, Dorr maintained that the air traffic controllers' schedules were devised in conjunction with the unions representing the controllers at each of facilities under FAA regulations of requiring 8 hours between shifts.

“We can't govern what employees do on their own time,” Dorr said. “We expect them to be responsible and rested before they report to work.”

NATCA Communications Director Doug Church disagreed and retorted that “controllers are absolutely more tired than they have ever been.”

“This is an understaffed system and the FAA is lying when it says it's not,” NATCA said.

Some of the recommendations NTSB made to FAA and to NATCA include:

  • Revise controller work-scheduling policies and practices to provide rest periods long enough for controllers to obtain sufficient sleep.
  • Develop a fatigue awareness and countermeasures training program for controllers and personnel involved in the devising controllers' schedules.
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