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October 24, 2014

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Chronic fatigue still problem at air traffic towers, report finds

Chronic fatigue at airport towers and government radar facilities that direct planes is still a major threat to safety, three years after a "sleeping controllers" scandal spurred the Federal Aviation Administration to focus on evening out work schedules, a government report released Friday said.

The National Research Council set out to examine the methods the FAA uses to estimate how many controllers are needed to staff its airport towers, terminal approach radar facilities and en route centers that direct high-altitude traffic across the U.S.

The FAA is up against a wave of retirements among its approximately 15,000 air-traffic controllers, who are required to stop working at age 56. The FAA needs to replace about 10,000 controllers over the next decade.

The FAA this year shifted to a controversial off-the-street hiring policy for controllers. By selecting candidates from among the general public, the FAA abandoned a 24-year program that recruited controllers from among military veterans with aviation experience and FAA-accredited colleges and universities that produce graduates with air-traffic control degrees.

The National Research Council report emphasized concerns about controller schedules that contribute to fatigue, particularly the practice of working five eight-hour shifts over four consecutive days, with the last one being a midnight shift.

The schedule is popular among controllers because it allows them 80 hours off afterward. But it likely results in "severely reduced cognitive performance" during the midnight shift due to fatigue, the report said.

It advised the FAA to work with the controllers union, which is the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, to formulate more efficient work cycles that help reduce chronic fatigue.

The FAA established a fatigue risk management program after a number of incidents several years ago in which controllers were caught sleeping on the job — mostly while alone on overnight shifts — but recent budget cutbacks "eliminated the program's capability to monitor fatigue concerns proactively," the report said.

"The FAA faces many challenges in identifying the level of controller staffing needed to ensure safe and cost-effective services nationally and at its 315 facilities, starting with the lack of definitive methods for relating staffing levels to safety," said Amy Pritchett, who chaired a committee that wrote the report. Pritchett is an associate professor of cognitive engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

The report recommended that FAA analyze accident and incident reports and voluntary reports by controllers as a basis for identifying links between staffing and safety.

"FAA headquarters provides no consistent guidance or tools to local facilities to help them develop their operational schedules," the report said.

The report was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

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