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FAA sets rules in attempt to keep air traffic controllers from sleeping on job

Air traffic controllers will be required to break for 9 hours, instead of just 8, between shifts. Supervisors will have to work more overnight hours. The actions come after six recent cases are reported in which controllers have fallen asleep on the job.

April 18, 2011|By Christi Parsons, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Air traffic controllers will be required to take at least nine hours off between shifts — one more hour than the current practice — and supervisors will work more overnight hours under new rules announced Sunday.

Controllers will not be permitted to lengthen their weekends by swapping shifts if that could put them on unscheduled midnight duty or deprive them of enough rest, Federal Aviation Administration officials said in a statement.

Managers also will be required to schedule their shifts to encourage greater coverage in the early-morning and late-night hours. The new scheduling rules are being instituted immediately and will be fully in effect by the end of the week, the FAA said.

The changes are partly the result of interviews with controllers who fell asleep on the job in highly publicized cases this year, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday."

"I don't know when I've ever been madder," LaHood said of the recent reports of sleeping controllers. "We're not going to stand by and let that happen."

Last month, after a sleeping controller at Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C., failed to assist two jetliners on approach, the FAA told officials around the country to report all such instances directly to them rather than handling them locally.

Since then, six cases have come to light, including one involving a medical flight unable to contact a controller working alone overnight at a Reno airport.

Early Saturday morning, a controller reported a co-worker asleep at a radar center near Miami.

The FAA has since put an additional controller on midnight shifts at airports that previously had one.

On Monday, the FAA administrator and the president of the controllers union will travel to Atlanta to begin touring facilities around the country to talk with workers and promote professional standards.

The federal government will soon release the results of its study of fatigue and may order other changes as a result, officials said.

LaHood said Sunday that controllers also must shoulder their share of the responsibility.

They can't make changes to the assigned shift schedule or engage in off-duty activities that will make them too tired to report for duty, he said.

"They have to take personal responsibility," LaHood said in the Fox interview. Their job involves the well-being of the public, "and it has to be done safely," he said.

Some nations permit their controllers to nap on duty, but LaHood ruled that out. "On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps," he said.

All of the sleeping controllers in recent cases have been suspended from duty, and LaHood said it was possible that some or all of them would be fired. Union contracts require an investigation of such cases before termination of employment.

"We can fire him," LaHood said of an employee alleged to have fallen asleep several times in the last few weeks. "But there has to be due diligence."

This week, the FAA and union officials will visit air traffic facilities in and around Dallas-Fort Worth; Kansas City, Mo.; Chicago; New York; and Washington, D.C., along with the air traffic control training academy in Oklahoma City.

Besides the changes in scheduling practices, the agency and union will develop a program to teach controllers about the risks of fatigue and how to avoid it.

The FAA is also commissioning an independent review of the air traffic control training curriculum and qualifications.

christi.parsons@latimes.com

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