Q: Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt and controllers union President Paul Rinaldi have been visiting air traffic control centers to talk with controllers about the recent problems and expected standards of conduct. What has come up during the dialogue?
A: We’re trying to make sure they understand that in the 24-7 operation we have, there is fatigue in the system. Previous administrations have been aware of it but never addressed it. We’ve made some headway with this administration. We’ve had a task force working for 18 to 24 months on a plan to mitigate the fatigue. Those twelve recommendations are out now. We have a team looking at how to transition to implementing them. You can’t with a snap of the finger change everything and not make things worse.
We’re also talking about the professionalism of the workforce, that we keep the safety of the system utmost on the forefront.
Q: Under a plan implemented this month, controllers will be guaranteed a mimimum of nine hours off between tightly scheduled shifts. But the union has favored scheduling practices that compress controllers’ schedules, lengthening weekends to three days or more. Has there been much resistance to this change?
A. It’s a Band-Aid fix. The science is showing that adding extra hours between the night time shifts and the day shift is the most important, not what we call the swing shift and the day shift.
Education is one of the recommendations on how to mitigate fatigue by yourself, both at home and work — from what you eat and how to exercise to when you sleep and how long you sleep.
As far as the changes in shifts go, there’s always a little resistance to change, but I think our workforce realizes that the safety of the system is important.
Q: Do the recent incidents point up a serious problem with the safety culture of controllers?
A: There were seven incidents [in a short period]. The first one that was very public was at DCA [Reagan National Airport]. We work 70,000 flights a day, scheduled and unscheduled. But they’re not even indicative of what the workforce does right. Each flight gets 12 instructions from a controller, on average.
I don’t think there are as many incidents as the media indicate. These just came close together. As far as fatigue is concerned, about one controller every six to eight months feels they might be set up to fail. That just means they’re [tired and feel they are close to] falling asleep, not that they’re about to have an problem.