Are fatigued US air traffic controllers endangering air travelers?

Copyright © 2009 U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeffrey M. Richardson

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic controllers often work five, eight-hour shifts over the course of just four days, then have 80 hours off before restarting the cycle. These “rattler,” schedules, as they are called, compress 40-hour work weeks into just four days, with a little more than three days off, before repeating it again, week after week.

Even in my twenties that kind of work schedule would be havoc for my body and brain, due to lack of good sleep. Without enough rest between shifts, by the fourth shift — if not earlier — it would be hard to be fully alert and at my best.

Air traffic controllers coordinate all planes in the air, and on the ground at airports, whether commercial, business or private aircraft. They are charged with maintaining the orderly and safe flow of air traffic in the skies. Their extensive responsibilities cause them to make countless split-second decisions every day to ensure air travelers’ safety. It’s a high stress job which needs controllers to pay extraordinary attention to detail every moment of every duty shift.

Millions of lives depend on the work of air traffic controllers every day.

It’s hard to believe that controllers working “rattlers” could possibly be at their best in their later shifts. According to the “Transportation Research Board Special Report 314” released last month, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, which wrote the report, agrees.

According to the 133-page report, those rattler schedules worked by many FAA air traffic controllers cause fatigue and poor job performance.

The National Research Council detailed a catalog of serious concerns with the FAA’s staffing and staff scheduling process. The impact of fatigue on air traffic controllers due to poor practices of the FAA, discussed throughout the report, was particularly distressing.

In it, the National Research Council stated,

“Fatigue is a risk factor for errors and accidents, and it is frequently encountered in operations that need to be sustained 24/7, like ATC [air traffic control system]. Fatigue can be broadly defined as a physiological state of reduced mental or physical performance capability.”

They cited eight major factors known to induce or contribute to fatigue, which include three particularly critical factors: chronic sleep restriction, circadian rhythm interruption, and sleep fragmentation.

Air traffic controllers work rattler schedules so they can get three-plus days off in a row. Those controllers are subjected to the three fatigue factors listed above. Rattler schedules typically include two swing shifts, two day shifts, and a midnight shift to squash five, eight- hour shifts into four days. The inconsistent hours from working three different shifts in each four-day period makes it difficult for air traffic controllers to get adequate sleep in each 24-hour period. The inconsistent hours break controllers’ circadian rhythms and thereby cause sleep fragmentation. With the schedule repeated week after week, the controllers suffer chronic sleep restriction.

The report characterizes the FAA’s permitting the 2–2–1 (“rattler”) schedule as highly questionable from a “fatigue management perspective.” Even more damning, the National Research Council stated, “…the committee [report authors] was astonished…” to find the FAA was still permitting the use of the 2–2–1 schedule.

I repeat, “the committee was astonished.”

To me, that’s a major indictment, and should motivate the FAA to eliminate the rattler immediately, despite its popularity among controllers.

The report agreed that budget cuts had reduced the effectiveness of the FAA’s established “fatigue risk management system,” but clearly didn’t let the FAA off the hook that easily. The report states, “FAA headquarters provides no consistent guidance or tools to local facilities to help them develop their operational schedules.” Moreover, the committee “found no systematic and proactive mechanisms within FAA” to analyze safety issues concerning staffing and scheduling.

In other words, FAA managers have abrogated much of their safety responsibilities.

This report is especially troubling for the air traffic control system’s future.

The report discusses the FAA’s readiness to implement the new NextGen air traffic control system with air traffic controllers to run the system. NextGen is being slowly put in place across the nation, but the report points out serious trouble signs ahead. This year alone, the FAA expects to lose almost 10 percent of its controller workforce due to trainees flunking out, plus controller promotions and retirements. Also discussed is the expected wave of experienced controller retirements from 2014 through 2019.

Couple that with an FAA which doesn’t take the problem of air traffic controller fatigue seriously, and I can only conclude that the rollout of the NextGen system is in jeopardy, as is the safety of the American flying public, now and in the future.

It’s time for the Obama administration to either get the FAA leadership to do their job, or replace them with people serious about aviation safety.

  • Daizymae

    But at least the government is keeping us safe by spending $8 billion per year on fondling our dangerous genitals, examining Grandma’s diaper, confiscating breast milk, and stealing uncharged iPhones. Terrorizing toddlers and abusing the elderly and disabled is a far more pressing security concern than air traffic control.

    The government is committed to keeping us safe. We have nothing to worry about. After all, deaths are only horrific if a bomb blows the plane up in the sky. If two planes collide and a few hundred people are killed…ho hum…another day in the fast lane here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

  • John Baker

    Ned … the controllers have a Union so this is a negotiated schedule… Good luck changing it. Ever seen a Government Union not get what they wanted?

  • Safety First

    Yes. As a member of a government union, I am here to tell you that OF COURSE public service unions don’t always get what they request. It’s not like most government employees have the ability to strike, either, and at least at the agency where I work, we are too heavily invested in our jobs emotionally/psychologically to “go slow” etc. because we know that if we do, the resources and citizens we are pledged to protect will suffer.

    Unions do not win on issues involving clear safety risks. In fact, most of the time, it is the union, not management, that wants to modify work rules to increase safety. That’s certainly true of pilot unions whose members deal with the same issues ID’ed in this ATC story. The air carriers are legendary in their disregard for pilot and FA fatigue complaints, at least until there’s an accident. And when there is, guess who gets blamed right away, before any facts are in? The pilots, unless they happen to have been able to land a jet on the Hudson River.

  • VELS14

    I agree. I’m of the opinion the Unions will fully cooperate with instituting changes based on this report.

  • NedLevi

    I agree with much of what you say SF. My personal opinion is that this report primarily damning the management of the FAA will get action because it’s from the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious science organizations in the world. Couple that with the undeniable facts about the safety of permitting the “rattler” schedule to exist, and the very bad press the FAA is getting from me and my colleagues around the nation and throughout the aviation industry, as we read and digest the report, and I don’t see how the Obama administration can let the FAA do business as usual.

    The report came out last month, but it’s long and complex, and a fast read can’t do it justice. That’s why I took my time reading and analyzing it and examined its concepts and issues carefully. To really understand the implications of the report you had to delve deeply into many of the issues revealed as carefully as possible and the various options which can be used to solve the problems as a superficial scan would not cut it.

  • h29tiger

    Where on earth do you get the 80 hours off? Most are lucky to get a full 48 off, usually there is a phone call bringing someone in on overtime or mandatory OT built into schedule.

  • h29tiger

    25 years of the rattler and it wears you out!