FAA failing on fatigue, safety risks: Poole

Nearly four years ago, NASA completed a study for the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), finding that controller work schedules lead to chronic fatigue that leads to operational errors, writes Bob Poole from the Reason Foundation.

Despite many requests for its release, the FAA kept the study under wraps, while it negotiated with controllers about modest changes to work schedules and began educational efforts on fatigue.

One of the targets of the study was the “rattler” shift schedule that I and various human factors experts have repeatedly criticised. Beloved of controllers because if gives them long weekends after working successive day, evening, and midnight shifts, the rattler is dramatically more fatigue-inducing than most other schedules.

The NASA study found that those coming to work for the midnight shift on the last day of the rattler schedule averaged only 3.1 hours of sleep in the prior 24-hour period. And controllers disclosed that it is on the rattler schedule that they are most likely to find themselves “about to doze off.”

“the FAA treats airlines, aircraft and powerplant manufacturers, mechanics, pilots, and others that it regulates at arm’s length more stringently than it treats its own people”

Moreover, as human factors expert Ashley Nunes reported in a guest editorial for Aviation Week (August 18), 66 per cent of rattler controllers reported attention lapses while driving to work, with 28 per cent of them falling asleep at the wheel.

Associated Press reporter Joan Lowy gained access to FAA’s controller safety database and reported that, despite three years of FAA anti-fatigue efforts, “controllers are still complaining that they make dangerous errors because their work schedules don’t provide enough time to sleep.”

A second issue, reported this month but receiving far less publicity, concerns five controllers in Detroit who have pointed out that when flight plans are changed at the last minute, the system does not flag this, so that apparently multiple flight plans for the same flight can exist in the system.

CBS news reported that: “A FAA investigation found that these multiple flight plans were occurring regularly—most commonly during inclement weather—and introduced ‘a safety risk into the air traffic control system’.”

The FAA has known about this problem since 2012, but it has not been fixed—hence, the whistle blowers’ complaint.

Both problems illustrate the tendency of the FAA to treat airlines, aircraft and powerplant manufacturers, mechanics, pilots, and others that it regulates at arm’s length more stringently than it treats its own people.

As one former senior DOT official wrote to me about the controller fatigue question, “That FAA can treat fatigue in the tower as a human resources issue instead of a regulatory issue should be touted to Congress as a very powerful justification for separation” of ATC from safety regulation. And a long-time FAA consultant emailed me, writing that, “An independent regulator could simply tell ATO that a compressed schedule is unsafe and no longer allowed.” Indeed.

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One Response to FAA failing on fatigue, safety risks: Poole

  1. Patco13 says:

    This has been going on since before the PATCO strike in 1981. The treatment of the humans that work for the FAA was the very reason I went on strike in 1981 and was subsequently fired. I never got the chance to thank Reagan.