FAA Issues Policies to Tackle Controller Fatigue

Guidelines represent small changes, no major FAA policy shift.

Tower

Tower

The FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) have announced an agreement on new guidelines intended to combat fatigue.** **

The agreement is the latest in a series of attempts by the FAA to restore confidence in America's air traffic control system, which came under heavy fire earlier this year with a barrage of reports detailing controllers sleeping on the job.

“The American public must have confidence that our nation’s air traffic controllers are rested and ready to work,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a recent FAA press release announcing the agreement. “We have the safest air transportation system in the world but we needed to make changes and we are doing that.”

Those hoping for a sweeping transformation of the FAA’s approach to controller fatigue, however, are likely to be disappointed by the recent agreement.

Among the few main provisions outlined in the 2 ½ page document is slightly relaxed language that suggests, but in no way directly states, that controllers may be allowed to sleep during break periods when they are not tasked with assigned duties. The new policy states, “Personnel performing watch supervision duties shall not condone or permit individuals to sleep during any period duties are assigned,” which is a change from previous policy that said supervisors shall not condone sleeping “while on duty.”

The agreement also includes a new policy allowing controllers on the night shift to read printed materials and listen to personal radios in an attempt to remain alert.

The agreement makes clear, however, that it is the task of air traffic controllers to prepare for their shift in a way that ensures they will be “well-rested and mentally alert.”

“It is the employees’ responsibility to recognize and report to their supervisor when they are unable to perform operational duties due to fatigue,” the agreement states.

Under the provision, controllers too fatigued to perform their shift would then be assigned to other duties or allowed to take leave. This policy is already making waves in the mainstream media, with more than a few headlines hyping the somewhat unrealistic notion that tired air traffic controllers can skip work.

While the recent agreement includes no changes to the current air traffic control scheduling system, FAA officials maintain that they will continue to work with NATCA to develop new scheduling principles to help fight fatigue no later than September of next year. Under current scheduling practices, controllers can work rotating day and night shifts within the same week, a process that some say played a role in the 2006 crash of a Comair regional jet in Lexington, Kentucky.