Job Safety

April 25, 2011

Suggestion 13

According to the article below, the Air Traffic Controllers Association has drawn up a list of 12 suggestions to fight fatigue in the control tower. I am not sure where they are in the process but we would like to add one more suggestion to the list. Suggestion 13 is to provide the Alertometer App with the new monitoring function to each controller. (The monitoring feature will be available Sept 2011.)

Aviation workers suffering from fatigue has been a problem identified by the Federal Aviation Administration several years ago, yet no solutions have been implemented and five air traffic control employees have recently fallen asleep during overnight shifts. Two of the five were fired.

“It’s tough to see controllers facing firing when the problem of (midnight) shift sleep deprivation has been acknowledged by the FAA,” said retired controller Rick Perl. “Sacrificial lambs is how it feels to me.”

A sixth recent incident involved the suspension of an air traffic controller for watching a portable DVD player during the shift. Former and current employees told the Associated Press that it is a common practice for overnight workers to watch movies or read magazines to help them stay awake. They added that staring at a radar scope for the eight hour shift in a dimly lit room is a recipe for fatigue.

Since 1993, when fatigue was first cited as a contributing factor to an accident, 14 aviation accidents and 263 fatalities have occurred due to or in part by fatigue according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Several solutions have been suggested and put aside, including allowing air traffic controllers to sleep during shifts when not directing aircraft, to take naps during scheduled breaks, and imposing shift limits on schedules.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association created a group to address controller fatigue, and the group offered 12 recommendations to FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt after a year and a half of research.

Sleeping during scheduled breaks or during flights when the plane was at a cruising altitude and neither ascending nor descending were two of the group’s suggestions. They cited sleep experts’ advice that scheduled naps during night shifts, especially between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., would help keep workers alert.

Babbitt was “abundantly enthusiastic about us moving forward,” said Peter Gimbrere, who is spearheading the controllers association’s fatigue effort.

However, administrator and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood rejected both recommendations.

“We don’t pay people to sleep at work at the FAA,” Babbitt told AP last week. “I don’t know anybody that pays anybody to sleep unless you’re buying people to have sleep studies.”

Patrick Forrey, a former president of the controllers’ union, said that the decision to ignore the recommendation was “unfortunate and political.”

“People think, ‘Why are we paying people to take a nap?'” Forrey said in an interview. “It doesn’t necessarily play well with the public, especially in an economy like today.”

Current controllers’ association president Paul Rinaldi said Friday that he is pushing for the FAA to embrace all 12 suggestions.

“The recommendations are based on advice from NASA and the military and in line with international air traffic control best practices,” he said in a statement.

He added that small recent changes by the FAA such as adding a second overnight traffic controller and giving workers an extra hour between shifts have “barely scratched the surface” in finding a permanent and workable fatigue solution.

Safety consultant and former NTSB member John Goglia said the FAA’s committee “is going nowhere.” He said that airlines don’t want new rules because they don’t want to deal with schedule complications and unions don’t want new rules because “they’re working tons of overtime to make up for the pay cuts that they took.”

“Everybody who works nights in aviation knows if you’re not busy you’re going to fall asleep because you’re chronically fatigued,” Goglia added.

The FAA is currently reviewing all 12 recommendations according to spokeswoman Laura Brown.