What to Do About Napping Air Traffic Controllers

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David Goldman/EPA

Last year, an FAA work group reported on Air Traffic Controller fatigue. The group recommended “increasing the time between shifts to provide controllers adequate opportunity to obtain sufficient sleep,” according to a National Transportation Safety Board review of the report released last January.

The work group’s recommendations weren’t implemented. Instead, the FAA pursued “a more collaborative approach with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and the establishment of a dedicated Fatigue Risk Management (FRM) Office within the Air Traffic Organization,” the NTSB said. Further, the FAA chose to develop and implement “a fatigue awareness training program consisting of a 1-hour fatigue awareness lesson taught in the terminal and en route initial qualification courses, a 30-minute computer based instruction (CBI) lesson for refresher training and a brochure.”

Creating a “fatigue awareness program” and an office of “Fatigue Risk Management” instead of combating the causes of fatigue is precisely the kind of thing that gives government bureaucracy a bad name. And at this point, public confidence in the FAA is tanking.

An investigation is underway into a potential mistake by a controller after Michelle Obama’s plane came two miles too close to a large cargo plane while approaching Andrews Air Force base and had to do a fly-around to get farther away. Then there were those air traffic controllers who were caught watching a movie while on duty. And the outrageous case last month of the air traffic controller sleeping on the job, a lapse that forced two commercial air liners filled with passengers to land without tower assistance at Reagan National Airport. As many as four other incidents of controllers napping on-duty surfaced in the ensuing weeks. Last week, FAA administration Randy Babbitt accepted the resignation of the head of the air traffic control system, Hank Krakowski, and added night shift controllers at those towers that only have one person working overnight.

Something’s wrong at the FAA, and the people running the place have known about it for a while. I’ll get to that in a minute, but to start with, a few contrarian facts. Flying is increasingly safe. There were no fatalities involving U.S. commercial airlines in 2010 and by most metrics that year was safer than the year before. The accident rate for Western-built passenger jets is at an all-time low. Moreover, air traffic controllers are extremely well-trained. Here’s what a recent Department of Transportation Inspector General’s report had to say on the subject:

“New air traffic controllers must complete an arduous training program that includes learning the basic concepts of air traffic control at the FAA Academy, followed by extensive facility training at their assigned location. Those controllers who are unable to pass the training process are either (1) transferred within their assigned facilities to a new area of operation, (2) transferred to a less complex facility to begin the training process again, or (3) terminated from employment with FAA. While certification times for individual controllers may vary, FAA’s goal is to have terminal candidates—who manage air traffic in the vicinity of airports—complete the training process in 2 years, and en route candidates—who manage high-altitude traffic—in 3 years.”

So, what has gone wrong? The immediate cause is the scheduling problem for Air Traffic Controllers. They often come on duty after only eight hours rest at odd intervals and irregular schedules. As a result, multiple past studies have found, they are often tired. At a June 2008 symposium on fatigue in aviation, an FAA manager for quality assurance and safety, Kenneth Myers, recommended expanding off-duty periods to at least 10 hours between regular shifts and 24 hours following a shift where most of the hours are between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. Other common-sense suggestions included no more than six successive shifts and diminishing shifts longer than 10 hours.

The underlying problem may be lack of personnel. The FAA is filled with thousands of people all hired at the same time, veterans who came into the job after firings in wake of the 1981 strike. Now those veterans are retiring and the FAA is losing air traffic controllers at a fast pace. Over the next eight years, the FAA will need to hire some 11,000 new air traffic controllers.