The US Federal Aviation Administration has established a panel to examine air traffic controller fatigue.

The three-person board, which the US regulator named on 20 December, will investigate “how the latest science on sleep needs and fatigue considerations could be applied to controller work requirements and scheduling”.

The board will be chaired by Mark Rosekind, a safety and sleep/fatigue professional and former National Transportation Safety Board member. Charles Czeisler, chief and senior physician, at the division of sleep and circadian disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Erin Flynn-Evans, head of the NASA Ames Research Center Fatigue Countermeasures Laboratory will also be on the panel.

They will begin their work in “early January” and present a report six weeks later.

“The panel will identify potential ways the FAA could better address controller fatigue,” the FAA says. As part of its work, it will review previous controller-fatigue research.

Air traffic control tower sunset

Source: Shutterstock

FAA forms committee to examine air traffic controller fatigue

Controller fatigue due to under staffing and the lack of qualified air traffic controllers has been a hot topic ever since numerous incidents at airports earlier this year in which aircraft came close to colliding.

A comprehensive report by an independent safety review team (SRT) published in November found the US national airspace system (NAS) and air traffic control organisation full of risks for potential accidents.

The SRT was called into action earlier this year after the FAA held a safety summit to address the issues. The incidents, which occurred at some of the busiest airports and airspace in the country, shed light on an air traffic management system that is chronically understaffed, underfunded and in serious need of meaningful overhaul.

It is well-known that the US aviation regulator has long suffered under budgetary issues, which have led to technology breakdowns, training backlogs and staffing shortages. The reasons are complex and historical and include a wave of retirements in recent years and the loss of workers who departed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many air traffic controllers have been working “historically high” amounts of overtime, the committee said, leading to absenteeism, lower productivity and fatigue. Often, sectors are combined, controllers throttle down aircraft volume and managers, who should be conducting oversight, are instead called on to assist stretched workers.

There are currently 1,000 fewer fully certified controllers than in 2012, even though the complexity of operations as well as the traffic those controllers have to manage has increased, the report noted.

Former FAA acting administrator Billy Nolen had promised earlier this year to hire more controllers to alleviate the bottlenecks, but the report said planned recruiting targets remain insufficient.

“Only hiring 1,500 air traffic trainees in 2023 and 1,800 in 2024, as intended by the noted agreement in the annual Controller Workforce Plan provided to Congress, does not adequately satisfy system needs with regard to complexity, growth and trajectory,” the report said.

Two days after the report was published, the FAA said that it would be taking “immediate action” to implement some of the report’s suggestions, including stepping up hiring for experienced controllers from the military and private industry, increasing classroom capacity at the FAA Academy, and expanding the use of advanced training across the country.