FAA Will Require More Rest for Air Traffic Controllers

FAA Will Require More Rest for Air Traffic Controllers

By Oghale Apr21,2024

The Federal Aviation Administration said on Friday that it was taking significant steps to mitigate the risks posed by exhaustion among air traffic controllers, after a series of close calls last year raised alarms about the safety of the U.S. air travel system.

Mike Whitaker, the F.A.A. administrator, issued a directive increasing the number of hours that controllers are required to rest between shifts from nine hours to 10, and 12 hours before a midnight shift. He said he hoped to put the changes in place within 90 days.

The announcement came as the air safety regulator released a 114-page report from an expert panel that assessed the risks associated with air traffic controller fatigue.

“We are committed to a sustained effort to address controller fatigue and ensure our airspace is the safest in the world,” Mr. Whitaker said in a statement.

The F.A.A. established the panel in December in the wake of a New York Times investigation that revealed how a nationwide shortage of air traffic controllers had resulted in an exhausted and demoralized work force that was increasingly prone to making dangerous mistakes. Many air traffic controllers were working round-the-clock schedules that had pushed them to the psychological and physical brink.

The Times reported that virtually all of the nation’s air traffic control sites were understaffed, forcing many controllers to work 10-hour days, six days a week.

“Growing the work force continues to be a top priority, and over the past two years we’ve pulled out all of the stops to accelerate hiring,” Mr. Whitaker said on Friday, adding, “Getting more qualified individuals into our air traffic facilities will help alleviate the demands on the current work force.”

A series of Times articles last year showed how the nation’s aviation safety system was under mounting stress. While the last fatal crash involving a major U.S. airline was more than a decade ago, potentially dangerous close calls had been happening, on average, multiple times a week last year, and some air traffic controllers said they feared that a deadly crash was inevitable. The Times found that errors by air traffic controllers had been one major factor.

Just this week, there were at least two incidents that appeared to involve air traffic controller mistakes at two of the country’s major airports. On Thursday at Ronald Reagan National Airport outside Washington, a Southwest Airlines flight was instructed to cross the same runway that a JetBlue Airways plane, Flight 1554, was cleared by a controller to take off from.

As the JetBlue plane accelerated, another controller yelled: “JetBlue 1554, stop! JetBlue 1554, stop!” The plane abruptly aborted its takeoff, but it came within as little as 312 feet of the Southwest plane, according to preliminary F.A.A. safety reports and recordings reviewed by The Times, putting it moments away from a potential crash. The controller who cleared the Southwest plane to cross the runway did so without prior coordination with the other controller.

The controller who cleared the JetBlue plane to take off was in training, according to one of the reports, and the controller who cleared the Southwest plane to cross the same runway had been working for more than two hours straight, longer than the F.A.A. recommends.

A system designed to alert controllers to potential collisions on runways, known as ASDE-X, appears not to have triggered an alert, according to reports on the incident.

The other incident, which has not been previously reported, occurred on Wednesday at Kennedy International Airport in New York, when a Swiss International Air Lines flight was cleared to take off on the same runway that four other planes were instructed to cross. The Swiss plane accelerated 800 feet down the runway before the pilot, citing “traffic on the runway,” aborted its takeoff to avoid a potential collision, according to preliminary F.A.A. safety reports and a recording.

The controller who cleared the Swiss flight had told the other controller to have the four planes cross after the Swiss flight, but the controller instructed the planes to cross ahead of the Swiss flight instead.

The F.A.A. said it would investigate the incidents. The National Transportation Safety Board said it had opened an investigation into the episode at Kennedy and was gathering information regarding the one at Reagan National.

In the report released by the F.A.A. on Friday, the expert panel identified 58 “opportunities” for efforts to address the risks posed by fatigue, including coming up with a plan to eliminate a common rotating schedule known as the rattler.

Under the rattler schedule, a controller might start his first shift of the week in the afternoon, with subsequent shifts beginning progressively earlier. The week would then culminate with a 24-hour period in which the controller worked both an early morning shift and, as few as eight hours later, overnight duty. Many controllers told The Times that, coupled with mandatory overtime, the schedule was exceptionally grueling.

In a statement, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents controllers, said it was encouraged that the F.A.A. was paying attention to fatigue but was concerned that the changes the agency announced would constrain the controller work force and affect air travel.

“F.A.A. has not modeled these changes to determine what unintended consequences they may have to the already strained air traffic control staffing coverage,” the union said, adding that it was worried that applying the new rules immediately “may lead to coverage holes in air traffic facilities’ schedules.”

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