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The air traffic control tower at Dulles International Airport in Virginia. (IStockphoto.com)

Door Opened For Air Traffic Controllers To Rest During Breaks

Jul 1, 2011

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Some other countries have allowed air traffic controllers to nap during their breaks and some experts think that might help prevent any more cases of American air traffic controllers falling asleep when they should be directing planes.

Today, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association reached a "memorandum of understanding" (posted here), that continues the absolute ban on any napping while controllers are at their screens. But it also has some flexibility so that controllers can now rest — and perhaps nod off — during periods when they are not "assigned" any duties. They must, though, "conduct themselves professionally and be available for recall at all times," the FAA says.

Here's how paragraph C of FAA Order 7210.3, section 2-6-6, Relief Periods read prior to today:

"Personnel performing watch supervision duties shall not condone or permit individuals to sleep while on duty. Any such instance shall be handled in accordance with FAPM 2635, Conduct and Discipline."

And here is how it reads in the new memorandum of understanding (we've added some bold to highlight the key change):

"Personnel performing watch supervision duties shall not condone or permit individuals to sleep during any period duties are assigned. Any such instance shall be handled in accordance with applicable Agency Policy and the CBA."

We checked with the FAA's press office and asked if we were reading too much into that change in wording. They referred us back to the language of the memorandum.

The memo also lays out steps for "ongoing fatigue mitigation efforts," including "new watch schedule principles that incorporate the science and modeling" developed by a workgroup that has been studying the problem. Some of that group's recommendations have already been implemented, such as requiring "a minimum of nine consecutive hours off-duty preceding the start of a day shift."

In addition, controllers are now being given the right to "self-declare as [being] unable to perform operational duties due to fatigue" and then be granted leave or assigned other duties.

And they're also going to be allowed to "listen to the radio and read appropriate printed material while on duty during the hours of 10PM and 6AM as traffic permits" — the idea being that doing those things will also help them stay alert.

In a statement, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt says that "air traffic controllers have the responsibility to report rested and ready to work so they can safely perform their operational duties. But we also need to make sure we have the right policies in place to reduce the possibility of fatigue in the workplace."

Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi says the changes are "common sense solutions to a safety problem that NATCA and fatigue experts have consistently raised for many years."

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