ATC training, staffing may cause errors

 - June 28, 2011, 5:10 AM

While fatigue has attracted the most attention as a cause of the recent well publicized air traffic controller errors, the Transportation Department’s top watchdog suggests that training and staffing may also play a large part.

According to DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel III, his office found that some facilities have a significant percentage of their workforce in training or eligible to retire. He cautioned that in more than 20 facilities, a lack of certified controllers could require curtailment of operations and could affect the entire National Airspace System.

For example, at the Denver Tracon 43 percent of the workforce is in training; that figure is 39 percent at La Guardia tower. “We are reviewing the FAA’s plans to provide its critical facilities with appropriate controller staffing, training resources and other support necessary to ensure continuity of facility operations,” Scovel told a Senate panel late last month. “We expect to report on our results later this year.”

Meanwhile, the FAA will be hiring and training 11,000 new controllers through Fiscal Year 2020. “However, our work shows the FAA’s placement process does not adequately consider new controllers’ knowledge, skills and abilities when assigning them to ATC facilities, and expected innovations to improve the quality and timeliness of controller training have not been realized,” Scovel said.

Action on Fatigue

The DOT IG was one of four witnesses called by the Senate subcommittee on aviation operations, safety and security, and he alluded to “longstanding concerns” about how operational errors are reported. He pointed out there was an increase in such errors in 2009 and 2010.

But National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) president Paul Rinaldi maintained that fatigue is the root cause of a series of incidents that gained widespread media attention. He said a joint FAA-Natca Fatigue Workgroup has made 12 recommendations for mitigating the risks associated with the midnight shift and fatigue. Several of the recommendations have already been implemented, he added.

As for the increase in reported operational errors, Rinaldi said the jump can be attributed in large part to policy changes intended to improve the identification and reporting of errors and promote a “safety culture” in which errors can be reported without fear of punitive measures, as well as certain strains on the system associated with high ratios of trainee to certified controllers. “The vast majority of controller errors are not safety risks,” he said.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said the FAA has been focused on mitigating controller fatigue since well before the recently reported incidents. The FAA and Natca conducted a joint, in-depth assessment of controller fatigue, risks and mitigations beginning last fall.

“Since the reported incidents, there was an immediate agreement to allow for more recuperative time between shifts–a minimum of nine hours between all shifts,” Babbitt said. “In addition, two air traffic controllers are required on duty during the midnight shift at 27 control towers across the country where only one controller had been scheduled previously, including Reagan National Airport here in Washington, D.C.”

In addition, he said the FAA Academy will expand and update its fatigue management training to help controllers recognize, avoid and combat fatigue. “Not all of the changes are universally welcomed,” he acknowledged. “But I am convinced that adding an extra layer of safety is the right thing to do.”

Babbitt explained to the Senate lawmakers that the FAA implemented confidential reporting systems and incentives for controllers to provide information directly to supervisors in late 2009, not long after he became Administrator. Modeled after the airlines’ Aviation Safety Action Program, the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (Atsap) has generated more than 28,000 confidential safety reports on numerous safety issues.

“Although Atsap filings do not get counted as operational errors, [the] FAA believes that the improved recording systems combined with the overall safety culture that Atsap and other programs are designed to foster are at least partially responsible for the 53-percent increase in the number of losses of separation between FY 2009 and FY 2010,” Babbitt said.

Fatigue researcher Gregory Belenky opined that the incidents in which air traffic controllers have inadvertently fallen asleep or deliberately napped while on-shift is a systemic problem, pointing out that sleepiness and degraded performance are generally characteristic of all night shift work.

“Unfortunately there is not a good solution to night shift work,” the Washington State University research professor said. “Given the structural realities of scheduling, the one possible solution to this problem may lie in sanctioned, scheduled on-shift napping when working the night shift.”

Belenky told the committee that American, Continental and Delta Air Lines are currently conducting studies in pilots flying augmented (four-pilot) long-range flights. From these and other studies, he continued, it is apparent that pilots are able to take advantage during cruise of the onboard crew bunk facilities for rest and sleep.

“And they do sleep,” Belenky said. “This sleep is on-shift napping, sanctioned by the FAA and paid for the airlines.”