WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration changed air traffic control work schedules Saturday, acknowledging it has a widespread problem with fatigue after another controller fell asleep on duty — this time in Miami.
"We are taking important steps today that will make a real difference in fighting air traffic controller fatigue. But we know we will need to do more. This is just the beginning," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement.
On Monday, Babbitt and Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, will begin visiting air traffic control facilities to hear what controllers have to say and to remind them that sleeping on the job won't be tolerated. Their first stop is Atlanta, home of the world's busiest airport.
The latest sleeping incident — the fifth to be disclosed by FAA since late March — occurred just before 5 a.m. Saturday at a busy regional radar facility that handles high-altitude air traffic for much of Florida, portions of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
According to a preliminary review of air traffic tapes, the controller did not miss any calls from aircraft and there was no impact on flight operations, the FAA said. The controller, who was working an overnight shift, has been suspended.
Prior to the start of the shift, all controllers were given a briefing on professionalism and the importance of reporting to work fit for duty, the FAA said. The incident was reported to a manager by another controller, the agency said. There were 12 controllers on duty and two managers, it said.
Rinaldi said the Miami incident was particularly disturbing because there was ample staff on duty at the time.
"It is never acceptable when we don't provide the level of service expected and required of us on every shift," he said. "We take our responsibilities very seriously and believe fatigue is a significant factor in these instances."
Regional radar centers are usually large rooms, but each controller has a cubicle. Because of the layout, a controller can accidentally doze off without being noticed.
It has been known for decades that fatigue is rampant among controllers. FAA rules forbid any sleeping on the job, even during breaks. Employees who violate those rules can be fired. But present and former controllers told the Associated Press that unsanctioned napping at night is an open secret within the agency.
At a radar facility, one controller may nap while the other handles two radar positions. At an airport tower, one may handle takeoffs and landings while the other sleeps. Then, they would swap. Many supervisors look the other way when controllers trade turns working their assignments to nap because they know how tiring controllers' schedules are, said retired controller Rick Perl of Oxnard, Calif.
"It has always been a problem," said Perl, who at one time was an instructor at the FAA's academy for new controllers in Oklahoma City. "There is no way you can get off at 2 p.m. in the afternoon and be back at 10 p.m. and get decent sleep."
Most tiring are the midnight shifts, which usually begin about 10 p.m. and end about 6 a.m. Staying awake during those hours disrupts the body's natural sleep rhythms, sleep scientists say.
A new fatigue study by the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which has not yet been released, found that one of the most tiring schedules worked by controllers is a week of midnight shifts, followed by a week of early morning shifts and then a week of swing shifts that start in the afternoon and wind up at night. The schedule doesn't give controllers time to adjust to any one set of waking and sleeping hours.
Another schedule compresses five eight-hour work days into as few days as possible, concluding with a day shift that ends about 2 p.m. and a midnight shift that begins about 10 p.m. Some controllers like the schedule because when they conclude the fifth shift they have three and a half days off before they have report back to work. But the schedule is also known as the "rattler" because it doubles back and bites those who work it.
The study's chief recommendation is that controllers be allowed sleeping breaks of as long as 2 1/2 hours during midnight shifts. Some other countries — including Germany and Japan — provide sleeping rooms for controllers on break at night.
Babbitt said the changes to controllers' schedules will be implemented within 72 hours, but he didn't describe the changes.
Earlier last week, the FAA announced it was ending its practice of single-staffing control towers at 26 airports and a radar facility where traffic is light between midnight and 6 a.m. The head of the FAA's air traffic operations resigned.