US FAA, NATCA agree on ways to reduce controller fatigue

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A US FAA-National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) working group has agreed on recommendations to reduce the dangers of tiredness among controllers.

The agreement follows a series of incidents earlier this year in which US controllers fell asleep while on duty.

Current FAA policy mandates that controllers must have a minimum of nine hours' rest between shifts. The FAA and NATCA will develop new watch schedule principles incorporating scientific research into fatigue for schedules beginning no later than 1 September.

The FAA will also develop a Fatigue Risk Management System for air traffic operations by January 2012 that will collect and analyse data on work patterns to ensure these do not increase the possibility of tiredness.

It will also design a fatigue awareness and education programme for staff, as well as encourage controllers to seek medical help for sleep apnoea (a condition that can result in reduced vigilance and impaired reaction times when awake). At present, controllers diagnosed with sleep apnoea lose their medical qualification. The FAA has agreed to develop a process for controllers to regain this qualification upon receiving medical treatment for the condition.

The agreement states that it remains controllers' responsibility to ensure they report for duty adequately rested and mentally alert. It is also a controller's responsibility to notify a supervisor if they are too tired to operate. As a result of the new agreement, controllers declaring themselves too tired to work can now take leave or be assigned to other duties.

NATCA has supported the FAA's decision to eliminate single staffing on midnight shifts, while the FAA has also said that it will now allow controllers to listen to the radio and read "appropriate printed material" between 22:00 and 06:00 when traffic allows.

"Air traffic controllers have the responsibility to report rested and ready to work so they can safely perform their operational duties," said FAA administrator Randy Babbitt. "But we also need to make sure we have the right policies in place to reduce the possibility of fatigue in the workplace."