WASHINGTON (AP) — It will take more than adding a second air traffic controller to overnight shifts to address the problem of workers napping in airport towers, aviation experts say.
Many of the government's 15,700 controllers work schedules that allow no realistic opportunity for rest, and their record for errors on the job has grown sharply over the past several years.
The head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Randy Babbitt, has decided to end the practice of single-staffing some towers where traffic is light between midnight and 6 a.m. The change was in response to at least four incidents in which controllers fell asleep on duty.
The most recent case occurred this past week when the pilot of a plane transporting a critically ill passenger was unable to raise the sole controller working at 2 a.m. in the tower of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada. The controller was out of communication for 16 minutes while the plane circled the airport before landing safely.
Thomas Anthony, director of the University of Southern California's Aviation Safety and Security Program, said he tells his students that for every aviation safety incident like the recent episodes of dozing controllers, there are likely hundreds of more minor incidents that go unnoticed or unreported.
"What you are seeing is the tip of the iceberg," said Anthony, a former controller, said.
The head of the FAA's air traffic operations has just resigned.
On Monday, Babbitt and Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, will begin visiting air traffic control facilities to hear what controllers have to say and to remind them that sleeping on the job won't be tolerated. Their first stop is Atlanta, home of the world's busiest airport.
"Professionalism involves more than just what you do when you're on the clock. It means everyone must report to work ready to work. That means all air traffic employees must manage their time off appropriately and be rested and ready for duty," Babbitt and Rinaldi wrote on USA Today's website.
The decision to add a second controller at night to 26 airports and a radar facility plugs a gaping hole in aviation safety, said Gregory McGuirk, an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
"There is redundancy in every aspect of aviation, everything has a backup," said McGuirk, a former controller. "So why on the world's worst shift would you put the weakest link — the human being — into a control tower without any redundancy?"
Babbitt may not get a warm reception when he visits airports where controllers are being added to the overnight shift. Not only are controllers at those facilities likely to be working night shifts more often, they probably will be putting in more overtime because the FAA doesn't plan to increase the number of controllers assigned to the airports.
The FAA and the controllers union are working together on ways to address chronic fatigue, Babbitt and Rinaldi said. The agency also will commission an independent review of its training curriculum and qualifications "to make sure our new controllers have mastered the right skills and learned the right disciplines before they start their careers," they said.
It has been known for decades that fatigue is rampant among controllers. FAA rules forbid any sleeping on the job, even during breaks. Employees who violate those rules can be fired. But controllers told The Associated Press that unsanctioned napping at night where one controller works two jobs while the other sleeps, and then they swap, is an open secret within the agency.
Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va., said he's hopeful that the attention generated by the recent sleeping incidents will cause the FAA to change its policies to allow controllers working at night to take extended nap breaks that can help them stay more alert when they go back to their tasks. That's something sleep scientists have long recommended and many other countries already permit.
"Before this recent public discussion, this was such a political nonstarter there was no one in the FAA who would even mention this publicly," Voss said. "Now an opening has been created to maybe do what they knew was the right thing along."
He pointed to the crash of a regional airliner near Buffalo, N.Y., two years ago that killed 50 people. The accident renewed concern about fatigue-causing pilot schedules, especially at regional airlines. As a result, the FAA is in the process of changing its regulations governing pilot work schedules.
In the 12 months ending on Sept. 30, 2010, the FAA recorded 1,889 operation errors, which usually means aircraft coming too close together. That was nearly double the 947 such errors the year before and 1,008 the year before that. Before 2008 the FAA used a different counting method.
It is the job of controllers to keep aircraft separated.
Very few of the errors fall into the most serious category, which could result in pilots taking evasive action to prevent an accident. But those instances have also increased. In the year ending Sept. 30, there were 44 such events; 37 in the prior year and 28 in the year before that.
Babbitt has said the increase in known errors is due to better reporting, including technology the FAA has adopted that can determine more precisely how close planes are in the air.
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