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New rules for US air traffic controllers
Aviation regulator to overhaul schedules for tower operators as fatigue-caused naps on the job spike, raising concerns.
Last Modified: 17 Apr 2011 05:32
The latest incident of a controller sleeping on the job occurred at Miami's international airport [GALLO/GETTY]

The US federal aviation regulator is set to ban scheduling practices most likely to result in air traffic controllers being fatigued while on the job, as yet another controller has been suspended after falling asleep during an overnight shift.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Saturday that it had suspended a controller at Miami's international airport for the incident, the sixth such occurrence in recent months and the second at a major airport.

The controller in question was assigned to an air traffic facility that handles aircraft routing over much of Florida, portions of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

"We will do everything we can to put an end to this," Randy Babbitt, the FAA's top official, said in a statement.

A preliminary review of the incident showed that the controller did not miss any radio contact from aircraft and no flights were affected. Twelve controllers were on duty at the time, the FAA said.

New rules imminent

The regulator said on Saturday that it would be moving next week to prohibit scheduling practices most likely to result in tiring controllers.

The changes could include doing away with midnight schedule swaps, curbing efforts to compress work schedules and ensuring that controllers are never starting a new shift shortly after finishing an earlier one.

Any proposed changes will have to be approved by the union representing the controllers.

"We are taking important steps today that will make a real difference in fighting air traffic controller fatigue. But we know we'll need to do more," Babbitt said.

He said that changes would be made within 72 hours, but did not elaborate on the specifics of what measures would be taken.

On Monday, Babbitt and Paul Rinaldi, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), will begin a tour of air traffic control facilities around the country to hear controllers' concerns, and to reiterate the FAA's stance that sleeping on the job will not be tolerated.

Their first stop will be Atlanta, home of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the world's busiest airport.

Changes to air traffic controller schedules would not reduce tower operations, and therefore will not have an effect on airline flight schedules.

Earlier, the FAA ended the practice of staffing overnight shifts with only one controller, which had occurred at more than two dozen airports. The airports in question were mainly small facilities with very light traffic after midnight.

On Thursday, the FAA official responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of 15,000 controllers at over 400 airports resigned, after a string of cases where controllers were found to have been asleep on duty.

A prominent case occurred on March 23 at Washington's Reagan National airport, which handles domestic flights into the US capital. The lone controller on duty fell asleep during an overnight shift, with two jetliners en route, raising major concerns among regulators and safety advocates.

The largest US airports, including those in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami, have more than one controller on duty at all times.

Punishing schedules

While FAA rules have long forbidden sleeping on the job, even during breaks, present and former controllers say that unsanctioned napping during overnight shifts is an open secret in the industry.

A new yet-to-be-released fatigue study by the FAA and NATCA has found that the most tiring schedule for controllers is working a week of midnight shifts, followed by a week of early morning shifts and then a week of swing shifts, which start in the afternoon and end at night.

The schedule does not give controllers time to adjust to any one set of waking and sleeping patterns.

Another schedule compresses five eight-hour work days into as few days as possible, concluding with a shift that ends at 2pm, followed by a midnight shift that begins at 10pm the same day.

Controllers often opt for that schedule because it gives them three-and-a-half days off before they have to report back to work, but the schedule is known in the industry as "the rattler", because it often doubles back to bite those who work it.

The chief recommendation by the FAA and NATCA's study is that controllers be allowed breaks to sleep for as long as two-and-a-half hours while on overnight shifts. Some countries, including Germany and Japan, provide sleeping rooms for controllers to take such breaks.

Source:
Agencies
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