What’s behind jump in controller errors?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Air traffic controller errors are on the increase, but whether there are really more incidents or better reporting is not determined, according to experts testifying at a recent hearing by a Senate aviation subcommittee. Operational errors increased a whopping 53% between 2009 and 2010, according to FAA statistics.

But FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said that although the numbers of errors show an increase, only a few are classified as category A. The vast majority of the errors do not involve safety. He cited as an example that if two aircraft are separated by 4.9 miles and the standard is 4 miles, it is listed as an operational error but there is no danger.

Fatigue is the big problem. Since 1993 more than 14 accidents resulting in 263 fatalities had fatigue as a causal or contributing factor, Paul Rinaldi, president of National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in his opening testimony.

The recent incidents of controllers caught sleeping on the job has pushed fatigue and sleep issues into the national spotlight. Addressing these concerns was Dr. Greg Belensky, director of the sleep and performance research center at Washington State University, who told committee members that sleep schedules affect work performance, noting that employees in all fields who work the night shift have sleep problems.

“I expect that an effective way to sustain operational performance and well-being in our traffic controllers working the night shift is sanctioned, scheduled, on-shift napping,” he said. Previous studies of air traffic controllers working the night shift has shown that even short, poor quality naps improve alertness and performance, Belensky added.

No one size of sleep fits all, when it comes to sleeping patterns, he noted. Morning people and evening people react differently, he told the committee, and changing their work routines further complicates the ability to keep awake and alert.

Some controllers in lower pay scales have taken second and third jobs to bring in cash, another factor possibly leading to fatigue. This revelation surprised Sen. John “Jay” Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who chairs the full Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

The FAA and the controllers’ union are working together to reduce the potential for trouble. Two of the controllers involved in sleeping incidents have been discharged and the top ATC official at the FAA resigned.

The FAA and the controllers union also are working closely together to make changes that will minimize the potential for errors. While the FAA’s recent steps are in the right direction, the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, Calvin Scovel, told the committee that “sustained oversight and commitment are needed to identify the root causes of ATC incidents and address longstanding concerns.”

One of the initial steps is an agreement between the union and the FAA that has resulted in a better assignment strategy for controllers. This new agreement allows the FAA to assign controllers to positions taking into consideration their experience levels.


  1. paulberge says

    “…an example that if two aircraft are separated by 4.9 miles and the standard is 4 miles, it is listed as an operational error but there is no danger….”

    In Babbitt’s example above, if the standard is 4 miles, and the controller adds another .9 mile to separate two aircraft by 4.9 miles, how is that an error? Too much separation?

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