EXCLUSIVE: Fatigue risk scheme considered for controllers

A new data-driven methodology that allows airlines to tailor fatigue-related risks to their specific type of operations could in future be applied to air traffic controllers.
Although the new ICAO Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS) requirements relate to flight and cabin crew, the methodology has been designed to be ‘broadly applicable’ to all safety-critical personnel including air traffic controllers and maintenance engineers.
Curtis Graeber (pictured), an aviation safety and human performance consultant, chaired the ICAO Task Force whose work led this summer to the release of guideline for airlines and regulators to implement FRMS as an alternative to the current practice of flight and duty time limitations for pilots and cabin crews.
“We’re not there yet and discussions to date have centred on examining if we could apply it. The point about the FRMS methodology being broadly applicable is that there is now a recognition that by applying different data and the latest knowledge, you could determine better how controllers are scheduled and how they work,” said Graeber.
“There has been talk at director level that we should look at this. When and how they are going to do that remains to be seen although there have been some preliminary discussions. It has significant attention at ICAO level although there are lots of competing areas such as an FRMS for maintenance engineering. “
Pilot fatigue has increasingly been cited as a contributing factor in aircraft accidents and this year’s series of alarming cases of US controllers falling asleep prompted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to change scheduling practices to minimize controller fatigue.
A National Transportation Safety Board report published in October details how a tower controller fell asleep on the overnight shift in March due to fatigue that resulted partly from FAA scheduling practices. The NTSB report details the actions of the various FAA personnel who were on duty that night, and lists the activities of the sleeping controller in the days leading up to the incident that led to two flights landing at Reagan National Airport without controller assistance.
“You have to look at the ecology of alertness: what is the situation that they are in, when did they last sleep, when did they last eat, are they used to operating at this time of the day, etc.? When you focus only on the number of hours worked, that is a very thin slice of the pie,” Graeber told Air Traffic Management.
Graeber pointed out that by initiating FRMS with flight crew members ICAO was starting with a requirement for prescriptive limits. “When it comes to ATCOs they have nothing in place. It’s a blank slate. The question that naturally arises is whether ICAO should go directly to a performance-based system (i.e. FRMS) or should they first develop prescriptive limits?” said Graeber.

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