WASHINGTON, D.C. — Controller fatigue and on-the-job training are growing problems for air traffic control, according to a report recently issued by the Assistant Inspector General at the Department of Transportation.
The FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association have been at odds for several years since the two have been unable to get together on a contract. NATCA has long claimed that facilities are understaffed, controllers are required to work overtime, and experienced controllers are required to oversee on-the-job training to the detriment of safe traffic management. The report seems to confirm these claims.
At the request of Sen. Richard Durban (D-Ill.), the DOT’s Inspector General’s office conducted an audit at three Chicago area air traffic control facilities in January and February of this year. The report, released in late June, identified factors that could contribute to controller fatigue, including minimal hours between shifts, counter-rotational shifts with progressively earlier start times, and overseeing on-the-job training, which requires a high level of focus and concentration.
The study, conducted at the O’Hare International Airport tower, Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), and Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), found fatigue problems at all three facilities. Overtime at O’Hare increased 75% between fiscal year 2006 and 2007, while it jumped 67% at the TRACON.
Controllers at all three facilities were scheduled to work at least one shift each week in which their rest periods were less than 10 hours between shifts. Based on a sample analysis, controllers at all three facilities were scheduled to work at least one “quickturn” between 66% and 86% of the time during a week.
Controllers at all three facilities conducted on-the-job training on a consistent basis. In this, a controller watches a trainee handle real-time traffic and quickly corrects any errors, a task said to be extremely fatiguing because the full-time controller is ultimately responsible. At O’Hare, the sample showed controllers conducted on-the-job training at least one day a week 58% of the time. At the TRACON, it was 39% and at the ARTCC 43%.
The report made five recommendations to the FAA to begin alleviating the problem. FAA officials accepted four of the five, including re-evaluating staffing requirements, increasing rest periods, providing mandatory fatigue training, and including fatigue factors in evaluating errors.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been concerned about the effects of fatigue on individuals in all segments of transportation, including air traffic controllers, since the 1980s. NTSB cited controller fatigue as a concern when investigating the fatal accident of Comair Flight 5191 at Lexington, Kentucky, in 2007. The lone controller on duty had only two hours sleep prior to his shift.
Former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey is now leading a team trying to settle the differences between the FAA and the controllers. At latest report, “progress was being made.” Getting an agreement with this union is a top priority for new-Administrator Randy Babbitt.
At any time — and particularly until controllers and the FAA come to agreement — this advice to pilots should be heeded: “You all be careful out there.”
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.