FAA says another air traffic controller fell asleep, plans to alter scheduling

The Federal Aviation Administration has suspended another air traffic controller allegedly caught sleeping on the job and is ending the scheduling system responsible for often putting sleepy controllers behind the microphone after just eight hours off duty.

The FAA said a Miami-based controller who directs planes after they reach cruising altitude fell asleep on the job early Saturday. It was the seventh instance this year when FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has suspended a controller for allegedly sleeping on the job.

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After yet another case of an air traffic controller caught sleeping on the job, the FAA announced new rules that are designed to eliminate controller fatigue. (April 16)

After yet another case of an air traffic controller caught sleeping on the job, the FAA announced new rules that are designed to eliminate controller fatigue. (April 16)

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A look at an air traffic controller’s 2-2-1 schedule.
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A look at an air traffic controller’s 2-2-1 schedule.

“We are taking important steps today that will make a real difference in fighting air traffic controller fatigue. But we know we will need to do more. This is just the beginning,” Babbitt said.

The sleeping controllers have been working the overnight shift, and until their dozing was discovered, at least 28 control facilities had just one controller working that shift. Babbitt and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered an end to single-person staffing this week.

Although scheduling is flexible to meet the air traffic system’s demands, one of the most popular schedules is known as the 2-2-1. Under it, a controller begins the workweek with two evening shifts, does a quick turnaround to a pair of day shifts and then does another quick turn before an overnight shift.

Those quick turnarounds — usually just eight hours — have been blamed for controller fatigue, particularly when the final quick turnaround comes at the end of the workweek and just before an overnight shift that usually is the least busy of the week.

The 2-2-1 is favored by many controllers because it compacts their workweek and creates a weekend of at least three days.

In 2007, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the FAA work with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to “reduce the potential for controller fatigue by revising controller work-scheduling policies.”

Babbitt, who has developed a close working relationship with Paul Rinaldi, president of the air traffic controllers union, will need to work out the scheduling changes with Rinaldi’s group. The FAA said those discussions already were underway. Rinaldi said in a statement that he supports the FAA’s actions. The change will affect 15,475 controllers.

The Miami controller who was suspended Saturday was working the midnight shift at the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center, which directs planes after they reach cruising altitude. He was on duty with 12 other controllers and two managers when a supervisor noticed he was asleep, the FAA said.

The FAA said a preliminary review of air traffic tapes indicated that the controller did not miss any calls from aircraft and that there was no operational impact.

Babbitt and LaHood were briefed on the incident early Saturday by David Grizzle, acting chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization.

Grizzle assumed that acting role Thursday after his predecessor, Hank Krakowski, was forced to resign. Krakowski was ousted after recent embarrassments when controllers were caught sleeping and a year in whichrecorded errors by controllers — some of them leading to near mid-air collisions — increased 51 percent.

“We are taking swift action to ensure the safety of our aviation system,” LaHood said Saturday. “There is no excuse for air traffic controllers to be sleeping on the job. We will do everything we can to put an end to this.”

 
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