ICAO develops guidance on controller fatigue

New guidance to prevent air traffic controllers from falling asleep on the job have been prepared by UN aviation agency ICAO.

A data-driven methodology already allows airlines to tailor fatigue-related risks to their specific type of operations and now an ICAO task force has developed fatigue management standards and recommended practices termed ‘SARPs’ for air traffic services. These have been accepted by the agency’s 190 signatory states before being adopted by the ICAO Council in February.

These new SARPs mean that states will be required to establish prescribed duty limits for air traffic controllers in addition to providing provide minimum standards for the regulation of Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS), should a state choose to allow ANSPs to use an FRMS as an alternative means of compliance.

“This is aligned with the approach taken with airline flight and cabin crew and provides for a common understanding of the science and fatigue management concepts, while the specific Annex 11 Fatigue Management SARPs facilitate the development of fatigue management regulations fit for purpose for air traffic service operations,” Dr Michelle Millar, a human performance technical specialist at ICAO, told Air Traffic Management.

The ICAO Approach

In general, ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) in various annexes support two distinct methods for managing fatigue: a prescriptive approach that requires the service provider to comply with duty time limits defined by the state, while managing fatigue hazards using the SMS processes that are in place for managing safety hazards in general and a performance-based approach that requires the service provider to implement a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) that is approved by the state.

Millar said that the task force found that prescriptive duty limitation regulations for controllers do exist throughout the world although these have generally been based on industrial negotiations or labour laws – not necessarily science or safety. These will now need to be reviewed in the light of the new SARPs.

“However, in many places there are no prescriptive limitation regulations for controllers and these will need to be established. Many states may well choose to adopt another state’s prescriptive ATC limitation regulations, but the application of these should be considered within their own context and adapted to meet their industry needs.”

To support the implementation of the new SARPs, the ICAO task force developed the ICAO/CANSO/IFATCA Fatigue Management Implementation Manual for ATS Providers which contains controller-specific information and research, and examples of implementation in ATC contexts. This describes current best practice for implementing both the prescriptive approach to ATC fatigue management and a FRMS which allows a ANSP to move outside prescribed limits.

The task force also contributed significantly to an extensive revision of The FRMS Manual for Regulators (Doc 9966) – developed in 2011 to support flight and cabin crew. That and the new ATS manual are designed to complement each other and can be downloaded for free at http://ow.ly/afvt301HUWX.

These SARPs become applicable in November 2020, when states will be expected to be providing oversight of ANSPs complying with the prescriptive limitation regulations.

With the establishment of new prescriptive fatigue management regulations in most states taking anywhere between 2–5 years, Millar said that experience with flight and cabin crew has demonstrated that it is a sensitive issue requiring plenty of time for industry consultation.

“Therefore, to meet this deadline, states and ANSPs will need to start now – and the early availability of the guidance is designed to assist them to do so,” she said.

While prescriptive limitation regulations for controllers are mandatory, the establishment of FRMS regulations is optional and the deadline of November 2020 does not apply. However, if states do choose to establish FRMS regulations, the new FM SARPs provide the minimum implementation standards.

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