For air traffic controllers, it’s been a tough spotlight

April 25, 2011

Fatigue among air traffic controllers has been an issue for years, but it has taken on new urgency after seven incidents of controllers falling asleep on the job or being distracted while working overnight shifts. Controllers have been fired in two cases, and other controllers have been suspended.

The Washington Post spoke with Trish Gilbert, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, about changes that are in the works for the 15,475 controllers and other issues the recent events have brought to light.

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.

Q: What has been the biggest impediment to making sure controllers are well-rested?

A: One of the recommendations the task force has made is recuperative breaks that allow a second controller to take over for you. Until now, there has been no ability to splash water on your face, make a cup of coffee and walk up and down the stairs. During the recuperative break, some people will need exercise, some will need a 15-minute close-my-eyes time. We shouldn’t stop short of what science says.

Q.: At least 28 control facilities had just one controller on the overnight shift until the FAA ordered an end to single-person staffing. Was this a big concern?

A: The one person in the towers has been a huge concern of ours. You put them in a dark tower from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., and it’s tough. The problem is from 2 to 4 in the morning, where you might have one plane at the most to direct. Even if you have a plane, the controllers are in this dark room and they’re looking at a dark screen. There are places like Dayton, Memphis, Louisville and a few others where you have cargo planes taking off and landing in the middle of the night, where people work the night shift constantly.

Q: Is relative inexperience an issue for the workforce?

A: We’re dealing with some residual effects of having lost close to 3,500 veteran controllers out of a 15,000-member workforce to retirement in the last couple of years. We’ve replaced them, but when you have a workforce there for 30 years, it’s not just the challenge of training the new people but helping them learn the culture. There’s some mentoring and coaching that still needs to take place.

Q: How can you keep experienced controllers?

A: We still have 3,000 controllers who are eligible to retire. We’re working with the administration to keep some stability in the workforce. The biggest incentive is the work environment. In 2009 we signed a collective bargaining agreement that lifted a pay freeze to try to keep them. The best way to keep people is don’t hurt their annuity, and make the environment a place where they want to continue to work. The administration is doing this. There’s still a lot of overtime being used to staff the system, and that adds to the fatigue issue.

Q: Are there other issues with fatigue that need to be addressed?

A: The one that’s going to be a little more difficult [for management] is that there are a number of sleep disorders we’re aware of, one of them being sleep apnia. The FAA has not been good at educating the workforce on these. We realize there are disorders out there we need to get diagnosed and treated so the controllers can get back to work. During that time, it’s difficult to get your medical clearance back. We’re trying to get the agency to expedite these clearances so people can get back to work. They just need to be more efficient.

Q. Was there any upside to this spate of near-disasters?

A. I think it certainly put a spotlight on the strain in the system with regard to the 24-7 operation and the realization that budget should not be driving decisions. Certainly the previous administration was slow in this area. We pushed the [George W. Bush] administration to get two people in all the towers. And it’s only happening now.

Q. How is morale in the ranks?

A. They’re very concerned. They take it very personal. There’s not a group out there who are more committed to safety. To them it’s not a job or a career, it’s who they are. They’re very proud professionals. To be a joke right now [on late-night television] is very upsetting to them.

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
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