WASHINGTON — Air traffic controllers are at greater risk for fatigue, errors and accidents because they work schedules known as “rattlers” that make it likely they’ll get little or no sleep before overnight shifts, according to a government-sponsored report.
Three years after a series of incidents in which controllers were found to be sleeping on the job, a National Research Council report released Friday expressed astonishment that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) still permits controllers to work schedules that cram five work shifts into four 24-hour periods.
The schedules are popular with controllers because at the end of the last shift they have 80 hours off before returning to work the next week. But controllers also call the shifts “rattlers” because they “turn around and bite back.”
The report also expressed concern about the effectiveness of the FAA’s program to prevent its 15,000 controllers from suffering fatigue on the job, a program that has been hit with budget cuts. The 12-member committee of academic and industry experts who wrote the report at the behest of Congress said FAA officials also refused to allow them to review results of prior research the agency conducted with NASA that examined how late-night work schedules affect controller performance.
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The FAA-NASA research results “have remained in a ‘for official use only’ format” since 2009 and have not been released to the public, the report said.
An example of the kind of schedule that alarmed the report’s authors begins with two consecutive day shifts ending at 10 p.m. followed by two consecutive morning shifts beginning at 7 a.m. The controller gets off work at 3 p.m. after the second morning shift and returns to work about 11 p.m. the same day for an overnight shift — the fifth and last shift of the workweek.
When factoring in commute times and the difficulty people have sleeping during the day when the human body’s circadian rhythms are “promoting wakefulness,” controllers are “unlikely to log a substantial amount of sleep, if any, before the final midnight shift,” the report said.
The FAA said Friday that it is “adding limitations to its shift and scheduling rules.” The statement didn’t detail the limitations, and FAA officials didn’t respond to a request for clarification.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association defended the scheduling, citing the 2009 study that hasn’t been publicly released. The union said in a statement that NASA’s research showed that “with proper rest periods,” the rattler “actually produced less periods of fatigue risk to the overall schedule.”
In 2011, FAA officials and then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promised changes after nearly a dozen incidents in which air traffic controllers were discovered sleeping on the job or didn’t respond to calls from pilots trying to land planes late at night. In one, two airliners landed at Washington’s Reagan National Airport without the aid of a controller because the lone controller on the overnight shift had fallen asleep.
Studies show most night-shift workers, not just controllers, face difficulties staying awake no matter how much sleep they’ve had. That’s especially true if they aren’t active or don’t have work that keeps them mentally engaged. Controllers on night shifts often work in darkened rooms with frequent periods of little or no air traffic to occupy their attention, conditions scientists say are conducive to falling asleep.
After the 2011 sleeping incidents, the FAA stopped scheduling controllers to work alone on overnight shifts at 27 airports and air traffic facilities and increased the minimum time between work shifts to nine hours. But the agency revised its scheduling policy in April to permit single-controller overnight shifts in some circumstances.
The FAA has a “fatigue risk-management program” for controllers aimed at detecting practices that increase tiredness, but budget cuts “have eliminated the program’s capability to monitor fatigue concerns proactively and to investigate whether initiatives to reduce fatigue risks are providing the intended benefits,” the report said.
Another challenge looms: The FAA is facing a wave of retirements among its controllers, who are required to stop working at age 56. The agency needs to replace about 10,000 controllers in the next decade.
The agency this year shifted to a controversial, off-the-street hiring policy for controllers. By selecting candidates from among the general public, the FAA abandoned a 24-year program that recruited controllers from among military veterans with aviation experience and FAA-accredited colleges and universities.
Material from the Chicago Tribune is included in this report.