Air Traffic Controllers Report Chronic Fatigue Due to Scheduling

By Alan Levin | August 11, 2015

U.S. air-traffic controllers report high levels of chronic fatigue from schedules that require they work through the night, and aviation regulators need to take steps to limit the potential safety hazard, a federal study concluded.

Of controllers who made safety errors on duty, 56 percent reported that fatigue contributed to their mistakes, according to the study released by the Federal Aviation Administration. Controllers averaged only 3.25 hours of sleep on days they worked overnight, the 2012 study found.

Since before the study was completed in December 2012 — and following highly publicized incidents of controllers falling asleep on the job in 2011 — the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union have adopted many of the report’s recommendations.

“As a result of all of these actions, the whole problem of controller fatigue has improved quite dramatically,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in an interview. “Personally, I think we have a good story.”

Researchers used wrist sensors to monitor sleep on 211 controllers for 14 days and found they averaged 5.8 hours of sleep per night while working, according to the study. That fell to 3.25 hours for those working shifts that began at midnight.

In a survey of almost 3,300 controllers out of about 15,000, 61 percent reported they had caught themselves “about to doze off.”

The study, done by NASA researchers under contract to the FAA, was reported earlier by the Associated Press.

“Real progress has been made over the past four years when this report was first completed,” NATCA said in an e-mailed statement.

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