New ATC scheduling aimed at combating fatigue

April 19, 2011

The FAA and Department of Transportation announced changes to air traffic controller scheduling April 17 that are intended to give controllers more time to rest between shifts.

Under the new scheduling, controllers will have a minimum of nine hours off between shifts, up from eight. The new rules also limit when controllers will be able to swap shifts and require managers to schedule their own shifts to increase coverage in early morning and late night hours. The changes follow a string of incidents in which controllers fell asleep during their shifts.

“Research shows us that giving people the chance for even an additional one hour of rest during critical periods in a schedule can improve work performance and reduce the potential for fatigue,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt in a press release. “Taking advantage of the time you have to rest is also a professional responsibility.”

Controllers will not be permitted to switch to an unscheduled midnight shift after a day off, and they will not be able to swap shifts unless they will have at least nine hours off between the last shift they worked and the one they want to begin, the FAA said. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Babbitt also announced April 13 that an additional controller would be placed on the midnight shift at 27 control towers that were previously staffed by only one controller during that shift.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi said his organization supports the FAA’s steps to address fatigue and scheduling. NATCA and the FAA began a nationwide tour of FAA facilities intended to “reinforce the need for all air traffic personnel to adhere to the highest professional standards,” the FAA said. The effort is to include the development of a fatigue education program and a review of the air traffic control training curriculum, the agency added.

Rinaldi said NATCA is focused on professionalism and working with the FAA to reduce the effects of fatigue.

"The guideposts here for further action are the recommendations of the FAA-NATCA joint workforce on fatigue, which were the result of a year and a half of efforts,” Rinaldi said. “They provide science-based, healthy solutions to reducing controller fatigue.”