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.