The Federal Aviation Administration will soon require that air traffic controllers be given more time off between shifts, a response to concern about controller fatigue and to several recent close-calls involving commercial jets.

The union representing controllers, however, criticises the move, saying the FAA is making changes without adequately studying “unintended consequences” that could make fatigue worse.

On 19 April, FAA administrator Michael Whitaker says the agency will modify current controller-rest guidance to require controllers be off work for at least 10h between shifts. The current maximum required off-time between shifts is 9h.

JFK tower-c-Shutterstock

Source: Shutterstock

The air traffic control tower at John F Kennedy International airport in New York

In another change, the FAA will require that controllers have at least 12h off prior to starting “midnight shifts”, which are those during which the majority of the shift falls between 22:30 and 06:30.

Whitaker ordered the changes in a 19 April memorandum to FAA leaders. The new rest rules will take effect within 90 days.

“I understand this lengthened rest period will be an adjustment for thousands of our air traffic controllers,” Whitaker says.

The order is an initial response by the FAA to a new report, released by a panel of safety experts, about how fatigue affects air traffic controllers and air traffic safety. Whitaker in December 2023 commissioned the panel in response to several near accidents. Those events prompted industry and government to examine causes and solutions.

“The immediate impact is that we now have a roadmap to tackling some of these fatigue issues,” Whitaker says of the report, adding that the FAA will evaluate its many recommendations.

Pushback is already coming from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), which views fatigue as a significant concern but criticises the FAA’s process.

“FAA has not modeled these changes to determine what unintended consequences they may have to the already strained air traffic control staffing coverage,” NATCA said on 19 April.

The union fears Whitaker’s order will create “coverage holes” that, to be filled, will require controllers work overtime hours, exacerbating the fatigue problem.

The FAA has said its air traffic control organisation is significantly understaffed, and has been seeking to ramp up hiring.

Last year, the FAA achieved its goal of hiring 1,500 new controllers, and the agency is on track to meet its 1,800-new-hire goal for 2024, Whitaker says.