Controller Fatigue Compromises Reached

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Mid-shift air traffic controllers will be allowed to listen to the radio and read "appropriate printed material" but they won't be allowed to nap under a new deal on fatigue prevention announced Friday. Controllers who think they're too tired to work can also ask for leave. The agreement between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association resulted from a spate of incidents in which controllers were found sleeping on the job in circumstances varying from having sleeping arrangements set up to simply nodding off at the console. Some controllers were fired and others disciplined and the new policies are a compromise between the FAA's hard line and the union's earlier suggestions that the occasional cat nap might be a good thing for bored controllers fighting their circadian rhythms. In the end the agreement puts the onus on controllers to show up ready for the rigors of the night shift. "Air traffic controllers have the responsibility to report rested and ready to work so they can safely perform their operational duties," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. "But we also need to make sure we have the right policies in place to reduce the possibility of fatigue in the workplace."

As we reported in March, the dozing of a lone controller on duty at Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington was followed by a series of sleeping controller incidents. Among the immediate steps invoked was the FAA's decision to eliminate single-controller shifts at 24-hour airports and to fire then Air Traffic Operations manager Hank Krakowski. Although most sleep specialists interviewed in the aftermath of the incidents recommended bowing to Mother Nature's demands and letting controllers catch a few Zs under controlled circumstances, Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wouldn't hear of it and he reinforced that stand in Friday's announcement. "The American public must have confidence that our nation's air traffic controllers are rested and ready to work," said LaHood. "We have the safest air transportation system in the world but we needed to make changes and we are doing that." The union said it's satisfied with the compromises reached. "They are common sense solutions to a safety problem that NATCA and fatigue experts have consistently raised for many years," said union President Paul Rinaldi.

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