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FAA air traffic controllers still at risk: report

June 16, 2014, Washington, D.C. - Air traffic controllers are at greater risk for fatigue, errors and accidents because they work schedules known as "rattlers" that make it likely they'll get little or no sleep before overnight shifts, according to a government-sponsored report.


June 16, 2014
By The Associated Press

Three years after a series of incidents in which controllers were
found to be sleeping on the job, a National Research Council report
released Friday expressed astonishment that the Federal Aviation
Administration still permits controllers to work schedules that cram
five work shifts into four 24-hour periods.

 

The schedules are popular with
controllers because at the end of last shift they have 80 hours off
before returning to work the next week. But controllers also call the
shifts "rattlers" because they "turn around and bite back."

 

The report also expressed concern about
the effectiveness of the FAA's program to prevent its 15,000 controllers
from suffering fatigue on the job, a program that has been hit with
budget cuts. And the 12-member committee of academic and industry
experts who wrote the report at the behest of Congress said FAA
officials refused to allow them to review results of prior research the
agency conducted with NASA examining how late night work schedules
affect controller performance.

 

The FAA-NASA research results "have
remained in a 'for official use only' format" since 2009 and have not
been released to the public, the report said.

 

An example of the kind of
schedule that alarmed the report's authors begins with two consecutive
day shifts ending at 10 p.m. followed by two consecutive morning shifts
beginning at 7 a.m. The controller gets off work at 3 p.m. after the
second morning shift and returns to work at about 11 p.m. the same day
for an overnight shift — the fifth and last shift of the workweek.

 

When factoring in commute times and the
difficulty people have sleeping during the day when the human body's
circadian rhythms are "promoting wakefulness," controllers are "unlikely
to log a substantial amount of sleep, if any, before the final midnight
shift," the report said.

 

"From a fatigue and safety perspective,
this scheduling is questionable and the committee was astonished to find
that it is still allowed under current regulations," the report said.
The combination of "acute sleep loss" while working overnight hours when
circadian rhythms are at their lowest ebb and people most crave sleep
"increases the risk for fatigue and for associated errors and
accidents," the report said.

 

Responding to the report, the FAA said in
a statement Friday that it is "adding limitations to its shift and
scheduling rules." The statement didn't detail the limitations and FAA
officials didn't immediately respond to a request for clarification.

 

The National Air Traffic Controllers
Association defended the scheduling, citing the 2009 study that hasn't
been publicly released. The union said in a statement that NASA's
research showed that "with proper rest periods," the rattler "actually
produced less periods of fatigue risk to the overall schedule."

 

In 2011, FAA officials and
then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promised reforms after a
nearly a dozen incidents in which air traffic controllers were
discovered sleeping on the job or didn't respond to calls from pilots
trying to land planes late at night. In one episode, two airliners
landed at Washington's Reagan National Airport without the aid of a
controller because the lone controller on the overnight shift had fallen
asleep.

 

Studies show most night shift workers,
not just controllers, face difficulties staying awake no matter how much
sleep they've had. That's especially true if they aren't active or
don't have work that keeps them mentally engaged.

 

Controllers on night
shifts often work in darkened rooms with frequent periods of little or
no air traffic to occupy

their attention — conditions scientists say are
conducive to falling asleep.

 

"We all know what happens with fatigue,"
said Mathias Basner, an assistant professor at the University of
Pennsylvania medical school and the sleep expert on the committee. "The
first thing you expect to see is attention going down, reaction time
slows, you have behavioural lapses or micro-sleeps. … If you have to
react quickly in that situation, that is problematic."

 

After the 2011 sleeping incidents, the
FAA stopped scheduling controllers to work alone on overnight shifts at
27 airports and air traffic facilities and increased the minimum time
between work shifts to nine hours. But the agency revised its scheduling
policy in April to permit single-controller overnight shifts in some
circumstances.

 

The FAA has a "fatigue risk management
program" for controllers aimed at detecting practices that increase
tiredness, but budget cuts "have eliminated the program's capability to
monitor fatigue concerns proactively and to investigate whether
initiatives to reduce fatigue risks are providing the intended
benefits," the report said.

 

Basner said the FAA was
making no effort to determine whether there is a correlation between
work schedules and controllers errors. For example, there were near
collisions between airliners near Honolulu and Houston recently.

 

Such
incidents are often the result of controller errors.

 

The FAA and the controllers union have
established a program that encourages controllers to report errors by
promising they won't be penalized for honest mistakes. The reports are
entered into a database that the agency is supposed to use to spot
trends or problem areas. But controllers are sometimes too busy to file
reports, and the report forms don't seek information on the controller's
schedule or other details that might be used to determine whether
schedules are contributing to errors, Basner said.