Fatigue Federal agencies Shift work Air Transportation

FAA moves to give air traffic controllers more rest


Photo: Jerry Driendl/gettyimages

Washington — Air traffic controllers must have at least 10 hours of off-duty time between shifts, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Mike Whitaker announced April 19.

ATCs who work midnight shifts must take 12 hours off.

Whitaker said FAA is taking action after a recent agency-commissioned panel of fatigue experts concluded that sleep loss and extended wakefulness can trigger disruptions to ATCs’ circadian rhythms, leading to adverse effects on safety.

Whitaker said he will direct the Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service to ensure compliance with the new policy. He added that the agency is on track to hire 1,800 new ATCs in 2024 after meeting its hiring goal of 1,500 last year.

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy praised Whitaker’s action. In a press release, NTSB cited agency investigations dating back to 2006 in which ATC fatigue was determined to have an impact on incidents.

“The science around the dangers of fatigue is clear,” Homendy said in the release. “The safety of our skies depends on air traffic controllers who are well-trained and well-rested. This move by the FAA to give overworked and overscheduled air traffic controllers proper rest between shifts is the right thing to do.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association issued a statement welcoming the changes but expressing disappointment that FAA didn’t collaborate with the union when forming them. NATCA claims FAA hasn’t adequately addressed how a longstanding shortage of ATCs could impact worker fatigue.

“NATCA is concerned that with an already understaffed controller workforce, immediate application of the administrator’s new rules may lead to coverage holes in air traffic facilities’ schedules,” the statement says. “These holes may affect National Airspace System capacity. 

“Requiring controllers to work mandatory overtime to fill those holes would increase fatigue and make the new policy nothing more than window dressing. Understaffing currently requires FAA to assign mandatory overtime to controllers, including regular six-day workweeks, which leads to fatigue.”

The rule is set to take effect in July.

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