NTSB makes curbing controller fatigue a priority

WASHINGTON -- Fatigued air-traffic controllers were added Thursday to the National Transportation Safety Board's list of the nation's most pressing transportation safety problems.

The NTSB, which investigates accidents and makes recommendations, has long advocated for stricter rules regarding fatigue among pilots and flight mechanics. Better regulations for preventing exhaustion among controllers are among the latest proposals to be included on the agency's newly released list of "most wanted" improvements.

"Our aviation system requires that everyone be vigilant, that everyone be alert," board member Deborah Hersman said. "With respect to controllers, we know that fatigue is the enemy of good judgment, and what we need most from our controllers is good judgment. We need them to be well rested."

Other high-priority safety fixes on Thursday's list included steps to reduce icy conditions threatening airplanes, crack down on companies that let unqualified drivers operate trucks and prevent near-collisions on runways. In most cases, the NTSB said the federal agencies that oversee transportation safety have made little progress fixing them, despite years of urging.

NTSB investigators concluded this year that controller fatigue may have played a role in an August 2006 airline crash in Lexington, Ky., that killed 49 people. Its probe of the crash found that a Comair jet took off from the wrong runway, and that the air-traffic controller on duty at the time was working with only two hours of sleep.

NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker called fatigue "insidious" and said it could lead to "catastrophic results" if the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn't move quickly to ensure controllers aren't working exhausted.

A spokeswoman for the FAA, Laura Brown, said the agency plans to change controllers' schedules to prevent fatigue. "We've got an incredibly safe system right now, and we're always looking for ways to make it safer," she said.

The NTSB started calling for tougher limits on pilots' hours two decades ago and has blamed pilot fatigue in 10 commercial aviation accidents since 1993.

A USA TODAY analysis of records collected by NASA found Wednesday that hundreds of pilots, mechanics and others have reported that fatigue led to lapses on the job, including six unidentified airline pilots who fell asleep in midflight.

The NTSB also raised concerns about fatigue by railroad crews and pipeline workers. The agency said fatigue was a probable cause of 16 major railroad accidents over the past 23 years.

Most of the fatigue cases involve freight trains, but the NTSB also has said it contributed to accidents involving passenger trains.