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FAA Kept Controller Fatigue Data Under Raps For Years Until Now

August 11, 2015 - On Monday the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a 270 page study that showed FAA air traffic controllers work schedules often lead to chronic fatigue. The release of this report came after the Associated Press (AP) released a summary of the final report.

In 2009, the FAA entered into an agreement with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to conduct an independent field study of FAA air traffic controller fatigue. In 2010, NASA began the study which included controllers wearing a wrist device (Actigraph) to measure their states of sleep and wakefulness, survey data, sleep logs and psychomotor vigilance tests.


In 2011, the AP was able to obtain a draft of the final report. Since that time, the AP had attempted to obtain a copy of the final report from the FAA. For the past three months the AP had repeatedly requested from the FAA a copy of the final report under the Freedom of Information Act.

So when the AP decided to release the draft of the final report in a news story and stated FAA officials would not release the final report even after requesting this information under the Freedom of Information Act, the FAA decide after the story was out to quietly post the report online.

NASA's findings indicated that on average, controllers obtained 5.8 hours of sleep per night over the work week with 5.4 hours being obtained prior to morning shifts and 3.25 hours being obtained prior to midnight shifts. 70 percent of survey respondents who work midnight shifts had caught themselves "about to doze off" while actively working.



18 percent of survey respondents reported being involved in an operational error, deviation, or proximity event within the last year with 56 percent of those citing fatigue as a contributing factor. 78 percent of survey respondents identified shift work as the cause of their fatigue. An average score of 3.7 out of 5 was compiled for the survey respondents when asked if, "fatigue affects the ability of air traffic controllers to perform their job effectively." There was a correlation between a decline in alertness across work week and total sleep duration. The report suggests that the alertness decrement is "likely" due to the reduced total sleep (accumulated sleep debt).

NASA research team conducted a two-pronged approach to obtain information from air traffic controllers; a web-based survey of fatigue factors that was available to the entire ATC workforce and a field study that obtained objective measures of sleep, fatigue and alertness in a sample of controllers from selected facilities, including En Route Centers, TRACONs, and ATC Towers. During 2010, 3,268 FAA ATC personnel completed the online fatigue survey. The field study resulted in complete data being obtained from 211 controllers working at 30 facilities across the country.

Data consisted of 14 days of continuous sleep and activity monitoring using wrist-worn actigraphs, daily sleep and activity logs, a brief objective measure of alertness, and subjective ratings of sleepiness and workload. The purpose of the present study was to establish a quantified baseline for evaluating the impact of the FAA's planned fatigue risk mitigation strategies. Findings also will identify factors affecting fatigue and assist in targeting and designing future research areas.

The 2010 sample was found to be significantly' more fatigued than the comparable sample of controllers in the 1999 survey (Della Rocco et al., 2000a). The current ATC personnel sample was significantly more fatigued on the Chronic Fatigue Scale than a normative comparison group of nurses and industrial shift workers (Barton et al., 1995). Overall 18% of current respondents reported that they had an operational event in the last year with 56% of those who had an operational event self-identifying fatigue as a contributor to the event.

When asked if they had caught themselves "about to 'doze off" during work duties in the last year, 61% of all respondents and 70% of those with regularly scheduled midnight shifts replied "Yes." CPC respondents also indicated that "fatigue affects the ability of air traffic controllers to perform their job effectively" at an average of 3.7 on a 5 point scale - closer to "Frequently' than "Sometimes."

Of all aspects of their jobs included in the survey, respondents were least satisfied with their schedules and felt that their schedules contributed most to their fatigue. Respondents from the current survey had a higher proportion of counter-clockwise rapidly rotating schedules, especially with midnight shifts, and a lower proportion of straight shifts without midnights than the 1999 survey sample.

The study found that nearly 2 in 10 controllers had committed significant errors in the previous year, such as bringing planes too close together and over half attributed the errors to fatigue. A third of controllers said they perceived fatigue to be a "high" or "extreme" safety risk. Greater than 6 in 10 controllers indicated that in the previous year they had fallen asleep or experienced a lapse of attention while driving to or from midnight shifts, which typically begin about 10 p.m. and end around 6 a.m.

What steps has the FAA taken to relieve the problem of controller fatigue?

Answer - In 2012, the FAA implemented a comprehensive Fatigue Risk Management System to manage controller fatigue. This Fatigue Risk Management System includes policy and practice changes, along with fatigue education to raise awareness about the personal responsibilities associated with managing fatigue. Some of the changes the FAA has made as part of the Fatigue Risk Management System include:

- Allowing for recuperative breaks when no duties are assigned
- Requiring nine hours off duty where a day shift follows an evening shift
- Requiring positive confirmation of air traffic hand-offs during midnight operations
- Restricting consecutive midnight shifts
- Restricting 10-hour midnight shifts
- Restricting the start time of early morning day shifts that precede a midnight shift
- Allowing controllers to self-declare fatigue and take time off if needed to recuperate

Question - Has the FAAs policy on napping on breaks changed? How about napping during overnight shifts?

Answer - Yes, we updated our policy in 2012. Based on staffing and workload and when no duties are assigned we offer employees break opportunities to attend to personal needs, rejuvenate their mental acuity, and other similar activities. These break opportunities are available on all work shifts, including overnight shifts.

Question - Does the FAA still prohibit schedules with a single controller on duty after midnight?

Answer - The FAA makes a practice of staffing at least two controllers on midnight shifts. There could be situations in which an individual calls in sick, but that is not standard. On those rare occasions, we have implemented additional procedures to ensure controller alertness.

Question - How has controller scheduling changed? Is the minimum 9 hours off between work shifts announced after these events still in effect? Does this apply to all work shifts, or just the 2-2-1 rotation?

Answer - Yes, we have changed our scheduling policies and practices. These changes include:

- Requiring nine hours off duty where a day shift follows an evening shift
- Restricting consecutive midnight shifts
- Restricting the number of 10-hour midnight shifts
- Restricting the start time of early morning day shifts that precede a midnight shift to ensure night time sleep opportunities 
The minimum nine hours off between work shifts is an ongoing requirement under Joint Order 7210.3. It doesn't apply to all shifts. It applies to all schedules where a day shift follows an evening shift (this protects nighttime sleep opportunity). 

Question - Does the FAA believe the problem of controller fatigue has improved? Do you have any metrics to judge that by?

Answer - We believe it has improved. Although fatigue is an issue in any 24/7 operation, the FAA has taken many positive steps to minimize fatigue. The fatigue modeling weve done shows that there is greater alertness using these updated scheduling practices.

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