Why Some Air Traffic Controllers Are Too Tired to Safely Navigate Planes

Air Traffic Controllers at Logan International Airport in Boston, Air Traffic Controllers at Logan International Airport in Boston, Michael Dwyer/AP

Air traffic controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration work shifts that cause fatigue and poor performance on the job, according to a new report.

The National Research Council detailed a litany of concerns with FAA’s staffing and scheduling processes, noting some policies create safety concerns. The researchers suggested the agency modify the way it makes staffing decisions to ensure it has enough employees to meet its needs.

Many air traffic controllers take five eight-hour shifts over the course of four days, as it allows them to subsequently take 80 hours off. To work that much in such a confined timeframe, however, often leads to “sleep deficit.” The effect is multiplied as this schedule requires controllers to work their final shift late at night, in what is known as the midnight shift.

“This combination of acute sleep loss and work during the biological night increases the risk for fatigue and for associated errors and accidents,” the NRC said.  

Researchers called the practice “questionable,” and said they were “astonished” it was still allowed. FAA has established a “fatigue risk management system,” but budget cuts have reduced its effectiveness. The report recommended the agency work with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to implement a new schedule that better accounts for fatigue.

Part of the issue stems from a lack of guidance from the FAA headquarters, the report said. Each facility is left to develop its own schedule “independently of FAA’s staff planning process.” Staffing levels and schedules, therefore, may not reflect best strategies for fatigue management or cost effectiveness.

The report also found FAA is not utilizing all the data it has at its disposal to measure potential shortfalls. Researchers found “no systematic or proactive mechanisms within FAA to analyze data relative to staffing levels.” In addition to using existing information, agency management should involve air traffic controllers in conversations to assess their concerns, 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, chair of the committee tasked with researching the report. “The committee’s recommendations aim to enable controller staffing decisions that are consistent; that are driven by proper science and data analysis; and that will address relationships between ensuring safety, meeting the operational needs of the aviation community, and demonstrating cost-effectiveness.”

Pritchett added FAA’s concerns are exacerbated by an upcoming wave of retirements at the agency. More than one in five air traffic controllers were eligible to retire at the end of fiscal 2012, and it generally takes years to train a new hire.  

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.