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  1. Opinion

Editorial: A wakeup call for air traffic controllers

The Federal Aviation Administration should not have tried to keep secret a report that examined fatigue levels among air traffic controllers. Instead, the agency should have embraced the findings, made them public and moved quickly to strengthen rules and regulations that help air traffic controllers get the rest they need to perform their jobs safely.

In 2009, the FAA asked NASA to assess fatigue levels among air traffic controllers. NASA's field study, conducted in 2010, included survey data, sleep logs and psychomotor vigilance tests. NASA turned in its final report in 2012. But the FAA rejected it, citing displeasure with the report's analysis and language. The agency finally released the report on Monday after pressure from the Associated Press, which had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the document.

In the 270-page report, NASA outlined survey results on fatigue factors for 3,268 U.S. air traffic controllers. Researchers found them to be more fatigued than workers in previous years and more tired than other shift workers, including nurses. More than 18 percent of controllers said they had an "operational event" on the job, and the majority cited fatigue as a contributing factor. Separately, 61 percent said they had caught themselves about to doze off during working hours, including 70 percent of controllers who worked midnight shifts. That jeopardizes air safety.

Scheduling proved to be one of the primary factors for chronic fatigue with many air traffic controllers working six-day weeks and rapidly rotating schedules, including midnight shifts and day shifts back to back with breaks of less than 12 hours in between. On average, controllers get 5.8 hours of sleep per night, though some slept as little as 3.1 hours before returning to work.

Air traffic controllers are critical links in keeping airplanes on collision-free courses. Their highly stressful jobs require total concentration at all times. Their duties range from assisting pilots with takeoffs and landings to directing ground traffic.

Serious missteps by air traffic controllers have been contributing factors in some of the country's worst aviation tragedies, including a 2006 accident in which an airplane at a Kentucky airport took off on a runway that was too short and crashed, killing 49 of the 50 people on board. The air traffic controller, who was working on just two hours of sleep, didn't notice that the plane had turned onto the wrong runway before clearing it for takeoff, according to the Associated Press. These types of incidents could be prevented simply by making sure that controllers get adequate, restorative sleep between shifts.

Despite rejecting NASA's report, the FAA said it used the data to implement changes in its work rules, including eliminating the number of 10-hour midnight shifts a controller can work. The agency also said it limited controllers' ability to work a day shift prior to a 10-hour midnight shift. These are steps in the right direction, but they may not be enough as some workers still report that the agency engages in scheduling practices that result in chronic fatigue. The National Transportation Safety Board should make sure that the FAA is complying with its rules and that controllers across the industry's 18,000 member workforce are adhering to the requirements.

Plenty of professions, from pilots to paramedics, are required to set and enforce strict rules that outline how much rest workers should get between shifts. Air traffic controllers should be no different. Aviation crew, passenger and public safety depend on controllers being alert and on task.