Combating fatigue among air traffic controllers

Overnight shifts can prove challenging for workers in many professions. For U.S. air traffic controllers, the consequences of falling asleep on the job can be deadly aviation accidents. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reached an agreement with air traffic controllers in an attempt to help them stay alert on the job. The new policies were announced today and coincide with the 2011 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) goal of addressing human fatigue in all areas of American transportation.

The new policy allows controllers to listen to the radio during overnight shifts, as well as read appropriate materials when air traffic patterns allow it. The new policy arose from negotiations between the FAA and the air traffic controllers’ union. The hope is that these changes will reduce the incidents of sleeping or unresponsiveness among controllers who are working between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

While the changes reflect “common-sense solutions,” according to the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, they do not address concerns raised by the NTSB regarding scheduling. Currently, controllers may be placed on “2-2-1” schedules. These schedules call for two evening shifts, followed by two day shifts and an overnight period. According to the NTSB, this does not coincide with normal sleep-wake patterns and therefore poses a threat to proper alertness levels.

The 2-2-1 shift is popular, in part, because workers get a longer weekend period. The NTSB first advised the FAA to revise these schedules in 2007. According to studies, 61% of controllers have work schedules that do not allow for a normal sleep-wake pattern. Along with today’s announcement, the FAA and the union did say they would take the fatigue studies into account for schedules beginning in September of 2012.

Source: Bloomberg, “Controllers Can Use Radio, Books to Be Alert: FAA,” John Hughes, 1 July, 2011

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