NTSB Says Air Traffic Workers Need Rest

Federal safety investigators urged regulators Tuesday to provide air traffic controllers with more time off between shifts to prevent dangerous fatigue.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued two safety recommendation letters designed to reduce fatigue and improve vigilance of controllers. The recommendations were based on its ongoing investigation of the Aug. 27 Comair crash that killed 49 people on take-off from Lexington, Ky., and on investigations of 10 earlier crashes or close calls.

Without reaching conclusions on the causes of the Kentucky crash, the board noted that the controller who cleared the Comair Bombardier for the early morning takeoff had only a two-hour nap during nine hours off before his shift. The board said the controller did not notice the plane had turned onto the wrong runway - one too short for a commercial jet - because, the controller said, he had turned away from the window to perform an administrative task.

The board said fatigue played a role in these close calls:

¦ At Chicago's O'Hare airport on March 23, 2006, a controller working on four hours sleep cleared two jetliners to take off on the same runway.

¦ At Los Angeles International on Aug. 19, 2004, a controller with five to six hours sleep cleared one jet to take off from a runway another jet was about to land on.

¦ At Denver International on Sept. 25, 2001, a controller working with 60-90 minutes sleep allowed a cargo jet to take off from a closed runway with construction equipment at the end.

¦ At Seattle-Tacoma International on July 8, 2001, a controller with three hours sleep allowed a jetliner to taxi across a runway another jet was landing on.

The board urged the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents air controllers, to cooperate to revise work schedules "to provide rest periods that are long enough for controllers to obtain sufficient restorative sleep" and to modify shift rotations "to minimize disrupted sleep patterns."

"We'll certainly take a hard look at scheduling with the union, but many of the schedules that we have in place are at the request of our employees," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown. She said the contract calls for at least eight hours off between shifts, but the FAA negotiates how controllers rotate through shifts with union locals at each facility.

"This is a very welcome report," said Doug Church, spokesman for the controllers union. "We're ready to meet tomorrow morning. This discussion has to be had and goes to the core of aviation safety."

Negotiations on a new contract broke down in April 2006, and the FAA imposed work rules last September, Church said.

"They wanted to take back the ability to control the schedule. There is an understaffing problem and controllers are being asked to come in for mandatory overtime," Church added. "The FAA did away with ability of controllers to use sick leave if they are not rested enough," as the previous contract allowed.

The board praised the FAA for researching fatigue but flayed the agency for failing to act on it. The board noted the FAA had not acted on a recommendation by its own fatigue researchers in 2001 to evaluate work schedules at its facilities to provide longer rest periods.

"Little progress has been made to revise controller-scheduling policies and practices in light of the latest research findings," the board wrote. "Because of the lack of FAA action on this issue, controllers frequently operate in a fatigued state and the action needed now must go beyond simple evaluations."

The board said current regulations allow a controller to work four 10-hour shifts in 72 hours with eight hours off between shifts, although the contract called for eight-hours shifts on five consecutive days.

It said 61 percent of controllers work shifts that start earlier each day of the week. One in four controllers works at least one midnight shift a week, typically starting eight-hour shifts at 3 p.m. the first day, then 2 p.m., 7 a.m., 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Such schedules change too rapidly for body rhythms to adapt and oppose normal sleep-wake patterns, which work better with shifts that start later each day, the board said. The time off between day four and five is "especially problematic because controllers adapted to night sleeps must return to work an overnight shift after a short rest period during the afternoon and early evening."

The board also recommended the FAA and union train controllers in how to schedule sleep and limit interruptions during their time off.

A separate letter to the FAA recommended the FAA expand to all controllers its training program in how to manage tasks at work to ensure vigilance.


On the Net:

NTSB: http://ntsb.gov/

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