But a memo to more than 400 frontline FAA managers this month said a five-month internal review earlier this year uncovered repeated violations of a requirement that controllers have at least nine hours off between shifts. More than half of the airport control towers were found to have violated the rule at least once. One facility broke the rule scores of times.
The FAA suspended or fired several controllers for sleeping on the job last year, and the controversy contributed to the ouster of the head of the FAA’s air traffic control organization.
Among those incidents was one at Reagan National Airport when the pilots of two late-night jet liners had to land on their own after the controller supervisor who was the lone man on duty fell asleep. A Knoxville controller working the overnight shift made a bed for himself and slept during a five-hour period when seven planes landed. And a controller at a Nevada airport slept as a medical flight sought to land with a sick patient.
A scheduling practice that let controllers pack a full work week into just four days was singled out as the primary reason they were coming to work too tired to stay awake.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood
said he was outraged and put an immediate end to solo overnight shifts. The FAA ordered that controllers have a minimum of nine hours off before a day shift and prohibited a popular shift- swapping practice that violated that rule.
“A vast majority of employees are meeting the requirement for nine consecutive hours of rest between shifts,” said David Grizzle, FAA chief operating officer. “There are 12,000 shifts per month across the country, and in some cases, employees were [arriving] a few minutes early.”
After discovering the violations recently, Grizzle said the FAA was updating its timekeeping software to prevent controllers from clocking in without nine hours’ rest.
LaHood last year instructed the FAA to work with the union on rules to ensure that the controllers who manage 24,000-27,000 commercial flights a day to arrive at work well rested.
Almost a year ago, the agency and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) announced an agreement that required controllers to notify their supervisor if they were too tired to do their jobs. They also were allowed to ask for time off if they were too fatigued to work air traffic, were permitted to read on the job and were given rest breaks.
“These standards are based on a little more than guess work, so you’d think they’d want to adhere to them,” said Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, whose office has studied aviation fatigue issues.