Editorial: Fatigued air controllers endanger travelers

An air traffic controller looks out from the An air traffic controller looks out from the JFK control tower in this file photo. (January 26, 2012) Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

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Air traffic controllers call a schedule that crams five eight-hour shifts into four days a "rattler" because, like the snake, it can turn around and bite you. They're right. Hours like that shouldn't be allowed because sleep-deprived controllers put the flying public at risk.

But three years after a spate of incidents in which controllers were discovered sleeping on the job, the Federal Aviation Administration still permits rattlers, according to a recent report to Congress from the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

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An example of the schedule the council flagged begins with two swing shifts from 2 to 10 p.m. on consecutive days, followed by shifts from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the next two days. After the second morning shift, the controller returns to work that same day at 11 p.m. for an overnight shift. During that overnight slog, fatigue and lack of sleep increase the risk of errors and accidents, according to the council, which said the schedules apparently persist for no reason other than that controllers like the resulting 80 hours off between workweeks.

After incidents like one in 2011 when a controller fell asleep during his fourth consecutive overnight shift at Reagan National Airport near Washington -- forcing two planes carrying a total of 165 people to land with no help from the tower -- night shifts with a single controller on duty were prudently prohibited in most circumstances. The council said it was "astonished" to find that rattlers are still allowed.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, citing a 2009 FAA-NASA report, insisted such schedules don't endanger the flying public. But the FAA has never made that report public and refused to provide it to the council. If there's evidence to support the illogical conclusion that it's safe for controllers to work all night on little or no sleep, the FAA should make the case. If it can't, then it should kill the rattlers.

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