FAA Gives Air Traffic Controllers a Rest

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — After a number of recent incidents involving air traffic controllers asleep at the controls, the Federal Aviation Administration has changed its air traffic controller scheduling practices to give controllers more rest between shifts.

Among the biggest changes, announced on Sunday, controllers will now have a minimum of nine hours off between shifts, as opposed to the eight they were previously given. The change is designed to prevent air traffic controllers from taking unsanctioned naps while on the job.

“Research shows us that giving people the chance for even an additional one hour of rest during critical periods in a schedule can improve work performance and reduce the potential for fatigue,” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a press release. “Taking advantage of the time you have to rest is also a professional responsibility.”

In an effort to make sure that controllers are also alert (and not just awake) on the job, the new guidelines also specify that controllers will no longer be able to swap shifts unless they have a minimum of nine hours off between the last shift they worked and the one they want to switch to.
Additionally, controllers will no longer be able to switch to an unscheduled midnight shift following a day off. FAA managers will now schedule their own shifts in a way to ensure greater coverage in the early morning and late night hours.

The rules, which have been in development for some time by the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, will be in effect by the end of the week.

According to the Associated Press, the implementation follows the fifth incident this year in which an air traffic controller was caught sleeping on the job. Most recently, a controller was caught napping Saturday at a busy regional radar facility that handles high altitude air traffic for much of Florida, portions of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

No one this year has been injured due to the sleeping incidents. However, there have been accidents in the past that were directly traced back to a fatigued or sleeping air traffic controller, the most notable being a crash of a regional airliner in Lexington, Ky., that killed 49 of the 50 people aboard in 2006.

The FAA said it will continue to monitor its scheduling system to determine whether or not more changes are necessary. However, it is also said there was a level of responsibility that needed to be maintained by controllers as well.

“We expect controllers to come to work rested and ready to work and take personal responsibility for safety in the control towers. We have zero tolerance for sleeping on the job,” Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said in a written statement. “Safety is our top priority and we will continue to make whatever changes are necessary.”

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