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Response To Controller Fatigue Issue Largely Symbolic

On Behalf of | Jun 1, 2021 | Accidents & Incidents, Articles, Briefs, Regulatory & Other Items

With ever more reports of air traffic controllers sleeping on the job, those responsible for their work schedules are in full damage control mode.

Within the past 30 days, there have been seven reports of sleeping controllers, beginning with a lone controller dozing in the tower shortly after midnightat at Washington Reagan Airport forcing two airliners to land without benefit of tower permission and guidance. The most recent incident involved a controller in Miami who fell asleep during the midnight shift on 16 April at the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC).

The situation has become the butt of joke

It is not clear if there is a real upswing in these events or if more such sleeping incidents are being reported, forcing officials to react. In any event, their actions thus far are reactive and tactical. They fall far short of the kind of comprehensive assessment – and corrective action – which is necessary.

After the incident at the Reagan National tower, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered that two controllers be on duty at all times – at this one airport. The practice of assigning one controller during the midnight shift is routine at almost 30 other airports. (See Aviation Safety Journal, March 2011, “Sleeping Controller Unaware of Airplane Landings”)

Secretary LaHood: “We are taking swift action to ensure the safety of our aviation system.”

After a medical ambulance flight was unable to contact a dozing controller at the Reno-Tahoe Airport on 13 April, the pilot contacted the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) of Northern California and landed safely. Following this incident, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned only one controller on duty at 27 airports where this practice was permitted during the “graveyard shift” when activity is low. (See Aviation Safety Journal, April 2011, “One-Controller Shifts at Airports Stopped”)

On 14 April, following the fiasco at the Reno-Tahoe Airport, Hank Krakowski, the head of the FAA’s air traffic system, was forced to resign. The FAA’s general counsel, David Grizzle, was appointed as acting head of the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) until a permanent replacement can be found.

This action did not stop the flood of bad news about controllers. Anecdotal reports surfaced about controllers arriving for the midnight shift with bedrolls. During the early morning hours of 17 April, a controller at the Cleveland ARTCC was watching a movie on a portable player while working a radar position. His microphone was accidentally activated and a military pilot heard the movie playing in the background. The controller and the front-line manager were suspended, with pay, pending yet another FAA investigation into controller sleepiness, inattention and misconduct.

Meanwhile, FAA senior managers were meeting with officials from the controllers’ union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), to work out the details of efforts to apply a tourniquet and cut off the hemorrhage of bad news.

Three main actions were announced. First, a schedule change so that the minimum of 8 hours between shifts will be extended to 9 hours. Second, the head of the FAA, Randy Babbitt, and NATCA president Paul Rinaldi, will co-host a series of “Call to Action” meetings with controllers around the country. These meetings started Monday, 18 April. Third, the FAA will convene an independent inquiry into its controller training practices.

On 19 April an airplane carrying Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Biden was involved in a “go around” incident at Andrews AFB as a result of a C-17 cargo jet being on the runway. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will investigate. This is curious, as orbiting the field is not that unusual and no damage or injury resulted. One wonders if the White House was involved in getting the NTSB involved out of concern that the Department of Transportation and the FAA do not really have the air traffic control situation in hand and glib protestations of outrage will no longer suffice.

The FAA’s announced initiatives are neither meaningful nor likely to get to the root problem of controller fatigue.

When one considers the first initiative, evidently worked out in concert between the FAA and NATCA over the weekend, of extending the time between shifts from 8 to 9 hours, this is a whopping 12% increase in the time between shifts. It is not an hour of increased between-shift sleep. Whether it is 8 or 9 hours before the next shift, the controller has to drive home, eat, attend to family business, and sleep. It is the fortunate controller who, if he has eight hours to accomplish these tasks, can negotiate the commute to and from work and manage 6 hours sleep. The extra hour does not fundamentally alter the pernicious practice of cramming the shifts into four days so that many controllers are free to enjoy three-day weekends.

Instead of cramming all watches into a four-day schedule, one might suggest that every controller be scheduled for two consecutive periods off duty. This schedule could be instituted from the baseline of the 16-hour shift, so that every controller would be free from duty for 16 hours. There would be adequate time for commuting to/from work and getting adequate sleep (7-8 hours minimum).

The schedule might interfere with the controllers’ coveted three-day weekend. However, a really revised and sensible schedule would mean time off on a rotating basis. A controller’s “weekend” might start on a Saturday, or on a Monday, or on a Thursday. Equivalent weekend time-off would be built into the schedule.

The stability provided by one-shift-on and two-shifts-off would avoid the current practice of sliding each shift into a different beginning time, which guarantees maximum disruption of the body’s circadian rhythm.

As for the 8-hour “graveyard” shift during the early morning hours of the human body’s natural “circadian low”, there is a straightforward solution: break this shift into two 4-hour duty periods.

More than two decades of research into shift work documents that working a backward rotation (day to night to evening) or a compressed schedule (40 hours in fewer than five days) causes a sleep debt which impairs physical and mental functioning. Tweaking the schedule by one hour is a token modification, not the kind of meaningful change required to effectively counter controller fatigue.

Obvious solutions, such as splitting the midnight-to-dawn shift into two 4-hour segments have apparently either escaped the FAA, or NATCA objects. In these times of massive joblessness, controllers with $100,000+ salary should be pleased with the remuneration. Expecting a three-day weekend in addition appears to be a bit much in terms of perquisites.

ARTCC Washington DC

The second initiative, the “Call to Action”, might be challenged as a repeat of a similar effort two years ago. That Call to Action in 2009 was conducted in the wake of the Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash in Buffalo. It was discovered that the captain and first officer had commuted hundreds of miles to their base station and catnapped there in the ready room. Embarrassed by these revelations, the FAA Administrator, Randy Babbitt, travelled around the country in July/August 2009 meeting with pilots. The FAA issued press releases which positively bubbled with enthusiasm over these conclaves (sample title of one press release: “Call to Action Leads to Improvements in Pilot Training and Better Access to Pilot Records”).

Testifying before the House Aviation Subcommittee in September 2009, Captain John Prater, President of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), offered a view that was less overly enthusiastic. “Action was notably absent,” he declared.

For insight into these regional meetings, consider the following reactions from the pilots present:

Minneapolis – I don’t think everyone was as forthcoming as they wanted to be. Some people were very honest, but many felt that if they spoke up they might be singled out later on … I felt that many of the industry [airline] managers were putting too much of the fatigue onus on the pilots. More than once I heard the comment, “If you are too tired to fly, it is up to you to say that.” While I agree accountability lies with the pilot, it is the responsibility of the company to make schedules that allow for rest …

Atlanta – Sadly, though a myriad of concerns and complaints were aired, none received any further discussion, debate or prioritization … There were no conclusions, or resolutions, or even ideas labeled as worth a second look.

Dallas – I fear we may have participated in well-orchestrated window dressing. We spoke several times and made several points. They included:

We are done with the tired refrain of “if it’s legal, it’s safe”.

The reason why a crew scheduler feels comfortable with demanding a pilot fly a fatiguing schedule is because the FAA allows them to.

Don’t call us together and ask our opinion and then ignore us like the FAA has done in the past.

Here’s betting that Administrator Babbitt did not receive any negative feedback, such as the above, considering the gung-ho after-action reports submitted by his FAA minions.

One pilot’s characterization of the 2009 Call to Action as “well-orchestrated window-dressing” might well apply to the 2011 round of activity – skeptical, concerned controllers meet with glib, superficial officials from FAA headquarters.

The FAA announced that it will conduct an “independent review” of the air traffic control training curriculum to make sure that new controllers are properly prepared. The last time the FAA convened an “independent review” was in 2008 in the wake of the scandal surrounding certification of the Eclipse EA-500 business jet, in which the FAA approved the EA-500 design with “IOUs” from Eclipse to correct items not meeting standard after certification was granted.

This practice prompted an astonished reaction from Rep. Jerry Jerry Costello (D-IL), then chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee:

“One of the most disturbing things to me … is that instead of mandating that problems be resolved, the FAA accepted ‘IOUs’ from Eclipse to resolve the problems at a later date … to use an ‘IOU’ on the avionics system that is used to run the EA-500 which has no stand-by instruments from a new manufacturer who has no prior experience and on a system so critical to the aircraft is unbelievable!”

Stung by such criticism, the FAA produced the “independent” report, which concluded: “The team did not identify any unsafe conditions needing immediate attention within the areas reviewed.”

Note the careful caveats: “within the areas reviewed” and “immediate attention”.

How convenient. The purported independence of the team’s review is questionable. Six out of the eight members of the review team were from the FAA. The seventh member was from the Department of Transportation, which had already conducted its own review and mildly suggested that “some adjustments” to FAA certification practices were in order.

The eighth official was a former Boeing executive who was also the former head of the FAA’s Atlanta Aircraft Certification Office. This individual could not be expected to find fault with a certification process which had signs of FAA-industry collusion written all over it.

This eight-man panel hardly meets the test of a hard-bitten, thorough and independently qualified team of experts entirely free of the system under examination.

Given the sordid history of these puffball analyses, one should be rightly skeptical of the “independent” commission to be appointed to examine air traffic control scheduling and training practices.

To recapitulate:

* The addition a mere 1 hour to the time-off falls far short of two full shifts off watch.

* The Call to Action might allow for an airing of controller concerns, but these meetings are more likely to avoid any creative scheduling solutions.

* The independent review might not be independent at all.

What appears to be taking place is a lot of activity designed to placate the public that safety is Job One at the Department of Transportation and the FAA. What is not taking place is a realistic and effective response to a shift schedule which guarantees fatigue.