WASHINGTON (AP) - Federal safety investigators urged regulators
Tuesday to provide air traffic controllers with more time off
between shifts to prevent dangerous fatigue.
The National Transportation Safety Board issued two safety
recommendation letters designed to reduce fatigue and improve
vigilance of controllers. The recommendations were based on its
ongoing investigation of the Aug. 27 Comair crash that killed 49
people on take-off from Lexington, Ky., and on investigations of 10
earlier crashes or close calls.
Without reaching conclusions on the causes of the Kentucky
crash, the board noted that the controller who cleared the Comair
Bombardier for the early-morning takeoff had only a two-hour nap
during nine hours off before his shift. The board said the
controller did not notice the plane had turned onto the wrong
runway - one too short for a commercial jet - because, the
controller said, he had turned away from the window to perform an
The board said fatigue played a role in these close calls:
-At Chicago's O'Hare airport on March 23, 2006, a controller
working on four hours sleep cleared two jetliners to take off on
the same runway.
-At Los Angeles International on Aug. 19, 2004, a controller
with five to six hours sleep cleared one jet to take off from a
runway another jet was about to land on.
-At Denver International on Sept. 25, 2001, a controller working
with 60-90 minutes sleep allowed a cargo jet to take off from a
closed runway with construction equipment at the end.
-At Seattle-Tacoma International on July 8, 2001, a controller
with three hours sleep allowed a jetliner to taxi across a runway
another jet was landing on.
The board urged the Federal Aviation Administration and the
National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents air
controllers, to cooperate to revise work schedules "to provide
rest periods that are long enough for controllers to obtain
sufficient restorative sleep" and to modify shift rotations "to
minimize disrupted sleep patterns."
"We'll certainly take a hard look at scheduling with the union,
but many of the schedules that we have in place are at the request
of our employees," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown. She said the
contract calls for at least eight hours off between shifts, but the
FAA negotiates how controllers rotate through shifts with union
locals at each facility.
"This is a very welcome report," said Doug Church, spokesman
for the controllers union. "We're ready to meet tomorrow morning.
This discussion has to be had and goes to the core of aviation
Negotiations on a new contract broke down in April 2006, and the
FAA imposed work rules last September, Church said.
"They wanted to take back the ability to control the schedule.
There is an understaffing problem and controllers are being asked
to come in for mandatory overtime," Church added. "The FAA did
away with ability of controllers to use sick leave if they are not
rested enough," as the previous contract allowed.
The board praised the FAA for researching fatigue but flayed the
agency for failing to act on it. The board noted the FAA had not
acted on a recommendation by its own fatigue researchers in 2001 to
evaluate work schedules at its facilities to provide longer rest
"Little progress has been made to revise controller-scheduling
policies and practices in light of the latest research findings,"
the board wrote. "Because of the lack of FAA action on this issue,
controllers frequently operate in a fatigued state and the action
needed now must go beyond simple evaluations."
The board said current regulations allow a controller to work
four 10-hour shifts in 72 hours with eight hours off between
shifts, although the contract called for eight-hours shifts on five
It said 61 percent of controllers work shifts that start earlier
each day of the week. One in four controllers works at least one
midnight shift a week, typically starting eight-hour shifts at 3
p.m. the first day, then 2 p.m., 7 a.m., 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Such schedules change too rapidly for body rhythms to adapt and
oppose normal sleep-wake patterns, which work better with shifts
that start later each day, the board said. The time off between day
four and five is "especially problematic because controllers
adapted to night sleeps must return to work an overnight shift
after a short rest period during the afternoon and early evening."
The board also recommended the FAA and union train controllers
in how to schedule sleep and limit interruptions during their time
A separate letter to the FAA recommended the FAA expand to all
controllers its training program in how to manage tasks at work to
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