FAA Launches Panel To Study Air Traffic Controller Fatigue

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The FAA announced this week it has established a three-member panel of experts to explore the specific elements of fatigue among air traffic controllers. The panel will identify current science on sleep requirements that can be applied to the logistics of scheduling air traffic controllers.

Beginning this month, panelists will study developing research while simultaneously reviewing previous existing information on controller fatigue. Former National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind, a safety and sleep/fatigue professional, will chair the panel. He will be joined by Charles Czeisler, chief and senior physician, Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Departments of Medicine and Neurology at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston; and Dr. Erin Flynn-Evans, head of the NASA Ames Research Center Fatigue Countermeasures Laboratory.

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

26 COMMENTS

  1. It will quickly become apparent that the ATC scheduling is causing much of the disturbance to Controllers broken sleep rhythms. The actual shift is not severely difficult as a controller will be on position for around 40-70 minutes and then a break of around 20-40 minutes. That’s not a horrendous way to spend a workday. But it is the quick shift turn around and back to back shifts and promised overtime that break the sleep pattern. There are easy ways to deal with that but I will promise NATCA will fight tooth and nail to continue making these schedules that disrupt the human sleep.

  2. At KFFZ, Mesa Falcon Field, one of America’s busiest training airports, they fight fatigue the old-fashioned way: they close the tower early and go home leaving the swarm to fight it out on CTAF. Oh, and then to add to the fun, they switch the traffic patterns and close a runway when the tower is closed.

    There’s safety, and then there’s affordable safety.😕

  3. I have to wonder why with the current controller manpower shortages they continue to keep so many tower operations at smaller airports? I can think of two in Minnesota that IMHO, never required a manned tower operation but continue to be staffed. Perhaps the day is coming soon, if not long passed when the FAA should dictate schedules based on airport and airway capacity rather than the current method allowing airlines to operate their “bank schedules”.

  4. A Government agency to launch a panel?
    To be jaded I would have to say that the recommendation will lead to more (diversity) hiring.

    It’s way more complicated a problem than just being tired. Honestly I’d rather have a tired professional old time controller working me than some fully rested newhire who has no insights.

  5. I worked 29 years as a controller at Denver Tracon, the typical week shift was, first day back, 3-11pm, 2-10pm, 7am-3pm, 5:30am-1:30pm, and return that same day for a 10pm-6:00am mid-shift to finish the week. It is easy to see why controllers are constantly fatigued with this type of schedule.

  6. And we need a study to figure this out? How about hiring enough people, paying them well, and having them on a set schedule?

    Hard concept to grasp, but doing more with less ain’t working….

  7. Sadly, these problems (and everyone already knows what the problems are, even without a study) won’t be substantively addressed until two airliners embrace in flight due to unambiguous controller error (may this NEVER happen!). Right now the choice is to keep squeezing the ATC professionals because – well, because so far the worst hasn’t happened – or spending A LOT of money to make real improvements. That’s a no-brainer for any elected official, and only gruesome headlines can change that.

    Traffic lights, grade crossing improvements, earthquake-resistant building codes – it’s not just aviation. If anyone can think of a better way to do this, I’d love to hear it. Meanwhile, kiss a controller?

  8. Same reason we physicians are exhausted and burning out in record numbers and the highly trained experienced ones like myself are looking to retire as early as practical. 508 days for me, but whos counting 😉

    Its being chronically understaffed and overworked in a high stress position that is not easily filled due to the academic and intellectual and personal and character requirements to hold such a responsible job.

  9. (Sigh) Here we go again. About every 10 years another study to find out ATC has horrendous schedules, but they like them to maximize the days off. See the NASA study from 2010, the Brazil study from 2014, and there were studies done in 1997 and the late ’80’s. Granted, the 2010 NASA study forced a bit of a change from working a night shift to a day shift of 10 hours off, but there are caveats that allow that to shrink to 8 again if needed for overtime or comp time holdover. Worked ATC from 1977 to 2008 and saw the reticence to change at every facility. My worst was FSS, when the work week consisted of 4-mid, 8a-4p, mid-8a, mid-8a. Two days off unless it was Saturday/Sunday, then you only got Saturday off. Talk about catching yourself coming and going and having to use a calendar to schedule anything! Glad I was a lot younger back then.

    • It’s the age old issue I’m guessing. Everyone agrees a robust FRMS is a good thing, but, the employer does not want to pay for it through reducing atc hours and the staff don’t want to pay for it by a reduction in time away from work.
      How does one work 5 shifts a week and have 2 days off without a “rattler” shift combination being avbl ? You can’t, either the employer pays and the atc only works 4 shifts or some other mitigator is made avbl to atc to cover loss of days off like more pay more leave etc etc ?

  10. Been there, done that, several times in fact over a period of near 30 years in ATC. IIRC, there was a conclusion that too much sleep affected the awareness of the controller AND that the way the shifts were normally organized, the amount of sleep kept below some vague figure, kept the controllers more aware and on point during a shift. Sure, let’s do it again and figure in the new DEI policies and see what happens.

  11. They can study till they’re blue in the face and the conclusions will still be the same…hire more controllers, implement a shorter workweek (most of the world does from 28 to 36hrs), implement maximum time on console limits(60 min on a console/position with 15min off console before returning to a console/position). Do away with overtime and implement regular shifts with no rotating days in a week or changing days off every 4 weeks! And airlines have start spreading out arrival and departure times to reduce the peak traffic rushes at major airports! Ps. Some of the best controllers I ever worked with were minorities so get off the complaining about diversity!

    • 15 mins off is no rest. In the U.K. we do 2 hours max (less if you’re somewhere busy) but 30 mins break MINIMUM.

  12. Studies can tell us how much controllers need to sleep. But can it tell us how to make ATC into a job people actually want? Whether it’s the private sector or public agencies, everyone scratches their head about understaffing without considering the fact that the job sucks.

  13. Talk about re-inventing the wheel!

    We went through this in the U.K. 40 years ago. The end result was a system enshrined IN LAW – SCRATCOH. The basics were no more than 50 hours per shift cycle, no more than a 10 hour day (less if you started early), minimum 12 hours between shifts (So NO Split shifts!), minimum 56 hours between shift cycles.

    So – at a 24 hour unit you’d work 2 early (7-14), 2 late (14-22), 2 night (22-7) followed by a sleep day and then 3 whole days off.

    Save your money, the works already been done!

  14. This is all there own fault and the union NATCA. When the guy fell asleep at DCA 15 years ago. The controllers rattler schedule was identified as a issue. The agency public stated they needed to get rid of it. They did so for a short time. But on the next negotiation NATCA got it back because that’s what their members wanted. They really don’t care about the flying public. They are self serving. The issue is that FAA management has no backbone. They are afraid of the controllers union. Natca the union pays politicians a lot of money to do what they want. So it doesn’t matter unless there is an accident. Then they will change for a short time until the heats off in which case they go right back to it when no one is watching. Until Natca gets put in its place nothing will change!

  15. The FAA has conducted or commissioned many studies on air traffic controller fatigue throughout its history.

    Here’s a chronological list of some notable examples:

    1960s & 1970s:
    • Early studies: Initial research focused on basic human factors and work-rest schedules’ impact on controller performance. These studies laid the foundation for fatigue research methodology.
    • FAA Flight Service Station Study (1966): Investigated the effects of various work schedules on sleep patterns and performance of flight service specialists (precursors to today’s air traffic controllers).
    • FAA-NASA Air Traffic Control Simulation Study (1974): Used a simulated air traffic control environment to assess the impacts of different shift schedules and work demands on controller alertness and performance.

    1980s & 1990s:
    • FAA-Industry Fatigue Workshop (1985): Gathered experts from FAA, industry, and academia to discuss emerging knowledge on fatigue and its implications for air traffic safety.
    • FAA Circadian Physiology Study (1992): Evaluated the impact of night work and circadian misalignment on sleep patterns, alertness, and cognitive performance of air traffic controllers.
    • FAA Continuous Operation Assessment (1997): Investigated the feasibility and performance impacts of implementing extended periods of continuous work (beyond traditional shifts) for air traffic controllers.

    2000s & 2010s:
    • FAA Alertness Management System (AMS) Implementation (2002-2010): Developed and implemented AMS, a system using subjective and physiological measures to assess controller alertness and provide fatigue warnings.
    • FAA National Research Council Fatigue Study (2005): Comprehensive review of scientific evidence on air traffic controller fatigue, leading to recommendations for improved scheduling practices and fatigue management strategies.
    • FAA-NASA Advanced Technology Demonstration (2012-2015): Tested the effectiveness of napping facilities and light therapy as fatigue countermeasures for air traffic controllers in a simulated environment.

    2020s:
    • FAA Fatigue Working Group (2017-2021): Established a group of stakeholders to identify fatigue research priorities and provide recommendations for future research initiatives.
    • FAA Controller Alertness and Fatigue Monitoring Study (2022-ongoing): Evaluating the effectiveness of schedule changes and new alertness monitoring tools in managing fatigue and improving controller performance.

    2024: FAA Launches Panel To Study Air Traffic Controller Fatigue 🤔🤔🤔

    • Raf, that’s a very nice history. Maybe the important parts are cropped out of my monitor, but I’m not seeing the list of changes implemented due to these (expensive) studies. My observation, over a lot of time, was that the controllers themselves were not too agreeable to changes in shift cycles from what they’ve been accustomed to, no matter what type of shift rotation was involved.

  16. A previous facility at which I worked had a week of mids, a week of swings, a week of days, followed each week by one day off. I don’t like a week of mids. Wears me out. At 3am you’re gonna catch my head nodding. That facility shortly after my arrival went to the rattler. No good answer except back to backs make you tired also. Two hours on a busy position needs at least 30 minutes off. Slow traffic, many controllers prefer to just sit there and enjoy. ATC really is fun and rewarding to do. It’s just that you can have too much fun sometimes. I used to equate a two hour session at ORD during a heavy traffic period to a pilot shooting a 2 hour long hand flown ILS to minimums with a bit of turb tossed in. I’m a CFI-I. A normal ILS can, like the ATC session, but fun and rewarding. But too much fun can wear you out. Not that I have a clue what I just said. Guess you had to be there.

  17. Over 13,000 FAA air traffic controllers work hard to keep our skies safe. Yet, it’s surprising how few openly talk about controller fatigue, even though it’s a major safety concern, particularly on this forum. Is this because they don’t care about fatigue’s impact, or are there hidden reasons why they’re not speaking up? Could it be lack of support, or a culture that discourages open discussion? Are NATCA or the FAA itself playing a role in this silence?

  18. Here’s a quick solution: STOP WITH THE ROTATING SHIFTS ALREADY!!! its called a shift differential. Pay it. Make it attractive.

    I worked a rotating-shift job for a few months. NEVER AGAIN!!!

    Rotating shifts may “save money” but they cost more in non-$ ways

  19. Hey, can we bring Russ back and let him shake things up with the commenters? It’s getting as stale as a cracker that’s been left out in the rain. We need some Russ-toration in here, pronto!

  20. It’s the same old regurgitation we’ve heard for decades. I’ve been involved in ATC since 1960 {between the Air Force and the FAA]. I worked in some of the busiest places in the country. Before and after the PATCO strike; I retired 2005. Most politicians no nothing about ATC, they only see the venire. Most of us ,before the strike did it because we loved it. After the strike many were motivated more by money. Separation standards were increased because the new controllers couldn’t handle the old criteria. The FAA extended training times to double or triple what it took to certify pre strike controllers instead of washing them out.
    then diversity was the final straw; safety became secondary to politics, Merit hiring went out the window. This should be the primary point of discussion. ATC will never improve until they raise the standards, the rest is just so hot air. If the politicians and their appointees want to know where the problem lies, LOOK IN THE MIRROR.

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