The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) recently agreed to new fatigue recommendations, which include developing policies to encourage air traffic controllers to seek medical help for sleep apnea.

The agreement reinforces existing FAA policy that prohibits air traffic controllers from sleeping while they are performing assigned duties. The FAA will continue to provide air traffic controllers breaks on the midnight shift based on staffing and workload. While on break, air traffic controllers are expected to conduct themselves professionally and be available for recall at all times.

The FAA and NATCA also agreed that all air traffic controllers must report for work well-rested and mentally alert. It is the employee’s responsibility to notify their supervisor if they are too fatigued to perform their air traffic control duties. As a result of this agreement, air traffic controllers can now request to take leave if they are too fatigued to work air traffic.

“Air traffic controllers have the responsibility to report rested and ready to work so they can safely perform their operational duties,” said Randy Babbitt, FAA Administrator. “But we also need to make sure we have the right policies in place to reduce the possibility of fatigue in the workplace.”

The FAA had previously adjusted work schedules to give air traffic controllers a minimum of 9 hours off between shifts. The FAA and NATCA will develop new watch schedule principles that incorporate fatigue science for schedules beginning no later than September 1, 2012. The FAA and NATCA are already beginning to work with local facilities on watch schedules that reduce the possibility of fatigue in the transition from the day shift to the midnight shift.

Additionally, the FAA has agreed to develop policies that will encourage air traffic controllers to seek medical help for sleep apnea. Currently, air traffic controllers lose their medical qualification if they are diagnosed with sleep apnea. The FAA will work to develop a process for most air traffic controllers with sleep apnea to regain their medical qualification once they receive proper medical treatment. The FAA’s Office of Aerospace Medicine will also develop educational material to raise awareness of the symptoms and the physical effects of sleep apnea.

As a result of this agreement, the FAA will develop a Fatigue Risk Management System for air traffic operations by January 2012. This management system will be designed to collect and analyze data associated with work schedules, including work intensity, to ensure that the schedules are not increased the possibility of fatigue. Systems like these are commonly used in other areas of aviation to evaluate levels of risk.

Source: Federal Aviation Administration