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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is increasing vacation time between air traffic controller shifts after a report highlighted the risks

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is increasing vacation time between air traffic controller shifts after a report highlighted the risks

Ilya Novellaj/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The air traffic control tower at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, on Oct. 2, 2023. The Federal Aviation Administration is facing a shortage of air traffic controllers, who are having to work overtime.



CNN

The FAA announced scheduling changes in response to an expert panel that recommended that air traffic controllers have more stable work schedules and consistent vacation time to reduce fatigue.

The commission was created after a series of near-collisions on American runways.

FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker announced Friday that he will need at least 10 hours off between controller shifts, and 12 hours before the controller works the midnight shift.

Under current work rules, monitors can be scheduled to work eight hours after the end of the previous shift.

It comes as the agency tries to bolster its severely understaffed workforce, which has been working long overtime hours — including six-day weeks — to fill shift gaps at towers and centers across the country.

The scheduling change came up after that Two passenger planes came within about 400 feet of collision Thursday when controllers sent both planes to the same runway at Reagan National Airport. It was one of many Near misses in the last year.

During Friday's briefing with Whitaker, the FAA took no questions from reporters about the cause of the accident at Reagan and whether controller fatigue played a role.

The National Association of Air Traffic Controllers called fatigue a “serious problem,” but said the FAA's proposed changes could force controllers to accommodate more fatigue on the job.

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“NATCA is concerned that with an already understaffed workforce, immediate implementation of the new manager rules could result in coverage gaps in air traffic facility schedules,” the labor union said in a statement. “Requiring supervisors to work mandatory overtime to fill those gaps would add to the burden and make the new policy little more than window dressing.”

The union said this year's scheduling agreements were negotiated late last year, and that rapid changes could “disrupt the lives of superintendents.”

The committee called for the abolition of the classic schedule for air traffic controllers known as the “schedule.” It requires monitors to work five shifts – two afternoon to evening shifts, two morning shifts, and one night shift – in four days. In this model, controllers have 80 hours of rest before starting again.

What may be interesting is the schedule for seven out of 10 current observers, Commission Chairman Mark Rosekind told reporters. Researchers have studied the impact of this scheduling pattern for two or three decades, he said.

The committee did not propose an alternative scheduling model, but it gave the FAA nearly 60 items to work on, including setting minimum rest times between shifts, surveying employees about their preferred scheduling patterns, and increasing Air traffic controller recruitment.

Rosekind encouraged the FAA to look at both schedules and actual hours, “because often there can be a discrepancy between what was planned and what was actually executed.”

“Fatigue risk factors associated with overtime, back-to-back days or weeks of work, and mechanisms to address variable traffic/workload scenarios can be improved or eliminated by appropriately increasing staffing levels,” the report noted.

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The FAA's most recent numbers — released last May — showed the agency was 3,600 controllers short of its staffing goal. In November, the head of the air traffic controllers union told Congress that after deducting staff losses including retirements, the agency had an increase of just six controllers last year. The agency's latest budget proposal calls for increasing hiring capacity from a limit of 1,800 to 2,000 annually.

The new report said that sleep logs kept by some observers showed that some workers slept less than two-and-a-half hours between ending a day shift and starting a night shift on the same calendar day.

The 10- or 12-hour period between shifts will be implemented within 90 days, Whittaker said. He also said overtime shifts will remain part of monitors' schedules while the agency works to increase the number of monitors on its payroll.

A 2001 study of air traffic controllers cited in the report provided startling statistics: Controllers linked half of their on-the-job errors to fatigue, mostly due to their work schedules. More than three-quarters of the observers surveyed “found themselves on the verge of falling asleep on the job.”

A third of observers said they had fallen asleep at the wheel, often after a midnight shift that ended a series of annoying shifts.

The Scientific Expert Committee on Air Traffic Controller Safety, Work Hours, and Health included three experts and was led by a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board.