Air traffic controller fatigue: What's being done?

Apr 29, 2011

After seven incidents of air traffic controllers falling asleep or being distracted while working overnight shifts, fatigue among controllers has taken on new urgency.Join the National Air Traffic Controllers Association's Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert Friday, April 29 at 11 a.m. ET, as she chats about what steps are being taken to remedy the situation and how the organization will continue to keep the skies safe.

Have a question? Ask now.

Good morning and thanks for joining this chat. I'm Trish Gilbert, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents all 15,500 FAA controllers along with more than 4,000 other safety professionals. Before coming to Washington, D.C., to serve as NATCA's EVP, I was an air traffic controller for 20 years at Houston Center, a large regional radar center that oversees the airspace above a large swath of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and over the Gulf of Mexico.

As you know, we've been in the news for the wrong reasons the past few weeks. Several incidents occurred that put a spotlight on important safety issues like proper staffing of air traffic control facilities and the need to implement steps to mitigate fatigue, particularly on the overnight (mid) shift. Well before these incidents, NATCA and the FAA worked together for a year and a half on an array of safety issues in collaborative fashion, including convening a fatigue workgroup. That joint FAA-NATCA group came up with 12 recommendations, based on science and fatigue research. We are now calling for the implementation of those recommendations.

But we know that these incidents, despite most occurring due to legitimate reasons of fatigue, were embarrassing and unacceptable. We realized that we needed to recommit to professional standards and to that end, I have been traveling for the past two weeks with top FAA officials -- NATCA President Paul Rinaldi has done the same -- to air traffic control facilities nationwide, talking with controllers.

We feel the pain of what's happened. We have a highly skilled and professional workforce that continues to go to work each day and perform to the public's highest expectations and demands. But then for them to go home and see the news and the late night comics making our profession the laughingstock of the country.

We want to convey the real story to the flying public.    Our controllers are frustrated that their profession has been tarnished by these incidents. They are proud professionals who want the public to know their safety is assured and we have the world's safest system, working 70,000 flights safely every day.

I am happy to take your questions on any subject.

The very nature of the aviation is that nothing is going to happen 99.9...9% of the time, but that the exception has an extreme downside. I remember one crash in the 80s was blamed on the pilot's "over-learned behavior" when performing the pre-flight check (i.e. he was so used to the indicator light coming on, that he didn't notice it hadn't). TSA has let contraband through detectors because it's hard to keep focused on an endless stream of x-rays of sweaters and cell phones. Since the nature of aviation is to hire intelligent people and bore them to death, what steps do they take to keep the employees sharp and focused?

The midshifts are the slow time for most facilities (the exception being places like Memphis due to Fedex and Louisville due to UPS) so staying alert during those times can be challenging and are key.       During the day and swing shifts the job is very high paced and all are engaged and focused.  Again the midshfts in most places are the challenge and controllers do different things to stay alert.  Anything from from pacing to reading ATC material (which can be quite dry) to drinking a lot of coffee or energy drinks.   We are encouraging the FAA to better train and educate the workforce on techniques based on science and research.  

I really don't understand the Knoxville one where the guy has a mattress and he's woken up more than once and he still goes back to sleep, what gives?

With any occupation there are those that don't do the job or act in a away that is appropriate.   From 2006 to 2009 we lost 1/3 of of workforce due to retirement when their pay was frozen.   The FAA then rehired more than 7000 new trainees with many washing out of the program.     The workforce is stretched to its limits with 1/3 of the workforce now having less than 5 years in the FAA (with 2-3 years to certify as a fully certified controller) and many still in training .   We believe that the FAA has just started to take the right steps in better screening and training of the ATC candidates.  

It seems like there are simple things that can be done to mitigate fatigue -- e.g., keep people on night shifts on a longer term, regular basis or ensure that if there is a shift change make sure it is later the next week (i.e., it's easier to get up later than it is to get up earlier) or more radically, allow naps. How much of why the problem hasn't been fixed is a resistance to change on the part of controllers, managers or the agency (the "This is the way we've always done it" mentality)?

I think the workforce understands the a great deal about the fatigue in the system.  Fatigue is the system is nothing new.   This administration has in fact worked with us and science to come up with recommendations to mitigate the fatigue.   The group has worked for the last 18 months and we were on the cusp of educating the workforce, implementing the recommendations when the events of the last couple of weeks came about.  The air traffic controllers care greatly about the safety of the flying public and want to do their part to help implement the changes that are taking place and those that will in the future.

Isn't pilot fatigue a danger as well? My understanding is the air crew have 8 hours of downtime from the time the plane parks at the gate. By the time they finish the flight paperwork and get to the hotel, that can result in fewer than 6 hours of sleep. I know that there was a discussion of pilot fatigue after the Colgan crash, but has anything been done?

Yes.  There have been changes made to help with pilot fatigue since the Colgan accident.     While the recent media on controllers have not been the most positive we hope that due to it we will see things put into place to really help the workforce mitigate fatigue.    We are glad that it will happen due to the recent incidents rather than a tragic event.  

All the research I have seen on working late shifts says that people can adjust to working at night, but it takes time. Once adjusted they should be fine. But the worst thing is to change the schedule all the time. Was FAA doing that? If so, what can be done to fix it? Other research seens to indicate that sleep can be an involuntary event, much like sneezing or attending other body functions. Will it make sense to have enough people so some can sleep when necessary and preserve the integrity of those who are on duty? I suggest that FAA has studies that indicate they should change their procedures. Can they be encouraged to make these changes or have they been made recently?

We have worked for the last 18 months with the FAA and science and their research shows the same.    The key is that fatigue on shiftwork and specifically midshifts can be mitigated but can never really be non-existent.    Some of our facilities (those with a lot of traffic on the midshift) do work straight mids.     The science shows that the body can get used to that eventually but only if the individuals continue their sleep and wake time on their days off.    There is a problem with straight  mids in our facilities where there is not a lot of traffic on the mid...    You can lose the important skill set by only working slow traffic and then when you are needed on a day or swing shift the controller might struggle greatly doing the busier work.   Much like playing little league for years then all of a sudden being asked to bat in the majors.   

Who makes the decision regarding how many controllers are in the tower? Is it the FAA or is it the individual airport? There is a great parallel here to nursing services. Our healthcare system keeps on killing around 200,000 Americans each year, roughly the equivalent of 2 fully loaded &$&'s crashing every day (IOM report and follow-up studies). Adding an additional controller makes as much sense towards reducing these tower events as decreasing the nurse patient ratio. Where is Congress? If the FAA can address the situation in the air, who addresses this massive issue in hospitals and healthcare facilities? One thing for sure, the industry is doing every thing BUT addressing this issue. We have mandated ratios in only 1 state, and it took an enormous effort on the part of the California Nurses Association to get that done. Do we need national legislation on both fronts?

The FAA makes the staffing decisions.  We are also working with Congress so they understand and can assist with the needs of the system in order to keep it safe.    The FAA has recently put two controllers on a midshift which we believe to be a great first step.    

My mother is a nurse.  It is unfortunate that the budget comes before safety in so many occupations.    Stay strong and keep up the push to right the issues in your profession!!

Summarily dismiss these guys immediately upon finding them asleep on the job, and you will be amazed at how these incidents will disappear. Why would people whose jobs are to protect the public get a pass on sleeping on the job, when every cashier or cab driver would be fired for the same offense.

Each incident was not exactly the same.    While conduct did play a role in one, performance was a part of another, a undiagnosed sleep disorder in another and also the long standing problem of fatigue in the workplace due to the stress of the job and shiftwork.   All incidents are being dealt with by the FAA in different manners as they are not all the same.    I will say in most cases the controller did not fall asleep on purpose just like millions of people that fall asleep behind the wheel of a car do not do that on purpose.  The answer is to address these incidents certainly but to also look at scheduling practices and true fatigue mitigation based on science and research.



Firemen and flight crews get to sleep while on duty. Given the 24 hour schedule that air traffic controllers work. Why cant you allow controllers to sleep/nap when they are on a break from working?

That decision is not up to us but we are advocating for implementation of 12 recommendations, based on science and research,  put forth from a joint FAA/NATCA work group on ways to mitigate fatigue in the workplace.   Those recommendations  are things like education and treatment of fatigue and sleep disorders (specifically sleep apnea), recuperative breaks and some changes to the scheduling practices.    

At first report of the sleeping incidents, I thought today's crop of air traffic controllers must be careless and irresponsible. Then I read a story about how brutal the shifts are. It's extremely unreasonable to expect someone to work a series of day shifts, have 8 hours off (which is barely enough time to get home, eat and turn around for work again) and remain alert for a night shift where they work alone. The recent FAA proposal to extend the break to 9 hours between shifts doesn't seem like it helps much. What other proposals are on the table to address this situation?

There are other scheduling changes we are working with the FAA to implement that will help the workforce mitigate fatigue.    We have done the work with them to make changes based on science and we are both committed to make implementation a priority.  

Fatigue is a complex set of circumstances. It seems that only a complete review of the matter will produce the necessary information to establish robust guidelines or regulations - and ones that apply globally too. The UK regulated this issue 20 years ago and the whole of Europe is moving towards common regulation. The UK may not have the complete answer but it has a much more comprehensive approach to tacking this common problem. In its most recent Scheme for Regulation of Air Traffic Controllers' Hours (SRATCOH) the UK stipulates that there shall be an interval of not less than 12 hours between the conclusion of one period of duty and the commencement of the next period of duty. This interval may only be reduced (and only by a maximum of 1 hour) with the approval of the controller concerned and in any individual case such a reduction will be permitted no more than once in a period of 720 consecutive hours (30 days). It is difficult to believe that the immediate action of providing 9 hours (NATCA's recommendation) between shifts (an increase of 1 hour) is the full answer to a systemic problem. Why the discrepancy in what is a truly global industry? Surely global standards should prevail?

It absolutely is not the full answer and we are working to get other things in place that will help mitigate fatigue.     Our joint group has looked and all the research, has fatigue experts on the team and have made solid recommendations to the FAA administrator on what should be put in place.   Adding to the problem is staffing.    We have had a third of our workforce turnover in the last couple of years.  Many new hires are still in training and many of our facilities are working overtime to staff the system.   

All this makes me think that PATCO was right, back in the 80s, when it was pushing for shorter hours and workweeks and better conditions. Should we be resurrecting their old suggestion of a 32-hour workweek for air traffic controllers?

There have been discussions of that but the reality in this climate makes it a very difficult argument.    Staffing the system now is hard with our controllers already working a lot of overtime.    For quite some time that have been doing more with less.   

I understand that there was a joint FAA/NATCA workgroup put together to address fatigue issues back in 2009. I also understand that there were 12 recommendations that came out of that workgroup. How close is the FAA to implementing those recommendations to battle fatigue among ATC's? What has taken so long?

We are working to educate those that make the ultimate decision so they understand in order to truly address the issues all recommendations must be implemented.    I can't tell you when we will see it for sure but we are doing the work and education necessary to make it happen.  

I am afraid my time is up.   Thank you for your questions.   For the ones I did not get to or for follow up information you can email me at   


Thanks again,  Trish

In This Chat
Trish Gilbert
Elected as the National Air Traffic Controllers Association's seventh executive vice president, Trish Gilbert began serving her three-year term in September 2009 after working the previous 20 years as an air traffic controller at Houston Center (ZHU).

Hired by the FAA in 1988, Gilbert has been a union activist working the boards ever since. Her activism with NATCA began as a Quality-Through-Partnership (QTP) facilitator in 1992 and then, starting in 1994, led her facility for three terms as the Houston Center's facility representative.Gilbert became SW Region Chair of the National Legislative Committee (NLC) in 2001 before ultimately earning the position of NLC Chair, which she held from 2005 until her 2009 election as NATCA EVP.

Gilberts achievements have been numerous; her leadership as Houston FacRep resulting in a local membership increase of more than 30 percent. As NLC Chair, she led her team to success, increasing involvement within the legislative category as she raised activism from approximately 60-70 nationwide to more than 300 in order to boost NATCA presence on Capitol Hill.

Following high school graduation, Gilbert moved from her hometown of Eagle Point, Ore. to the state of Texas, where she attended the University of Houston. She has been married to her husband, John, a retired air traffic controller who also served as NATCA representative at ZHU, since 1989. The two reside in Spring, Texas, where they are the proud parents of daughter Jenna and son John Colby.
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