Compass: Alaskan workers must regain lost ground

By LARRY LESCANECSeptember 1, 2013 

Lately the news media made public several accounts of air traffic controllers sleeping on the job. As the Regional Vice President of NATCA, the federal sector labor union representing FAA air traffic controllers in Alaska, I want to assure the Alaskan flying public that Alaskan air traffic controllers are absolutely dedicated to professionalism and aviation safety. Our members take seriously the personal responsibility each of them has to act appropriately and keep the flying public safe.

As a veteran controller in Alaska, I have endured the FAA's fatigue-inducing scheduling policies for over 20 years. I can personally attest to the adverse health impacts and fatigue produced by controller work schedules at 24-hour air traffic control facilities. Controllers at 24-hour facilities work a schedule that compresses the workweek, starting with an afternoon shift and ending in a midnight shift five days later. From numerous fatigue studies over the last three decades, the FAA has long know this type of work schedule to be unhealthy and detrimental to gaining the proper rest required to maintain mental alertness.

As a result of the work schedule, controllers are at a disadvantage before they even "key the mike". But we learn to cope with it. One thing that cannot be overcome is the human body's circadian rhythm.

A circadian rhythm is an endogenously driven 24-hour physiological cycle widely observed in humans, plants, and animals. One criteria of an endogenous process is that it persists regardless of external conditions. Circadian rhythmicity is present in the sleeping and feeding patterns of animals, including human beings. There are also clear patterns of core body temperature, brain wave activity, and other biological activities.

The average human adult's temperature reaches its minimum at about 05:00 (5 a.m.), about two hours before the habitual wake time. At about the same time, the body's production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle by chemically causing drowsiness and lowering the body temperature, peaks. As anyone who ever worked the graveyard shift in any industry can attest, if the mind is not continuously occupied, alertness and situational awareness are extremely difficult to maintain. Have you ever stayed up all night cramming for a college exam? Or traveled all night on a red-eye flight? Most air travelers have experienced the condition known as jet lag, with its associated symptoms of fatigue, disorientation, and insomnia. Imagine experiencing that once a week for 20 years and you'll get an understanding of the controller's life. The bodies' natural circadian rhythms will not allow acclimation to such a schedule. Repeated sleep disruptions can easily lead to chronic fatigue.

The NTSB cites fatigue as a contributing factor to many transportation accidents and has conducted multiple research studies in order to find methods of combating fatigue in pilots and controllers. Keep in mind that when controllers are working, so are pilots, and they are just as likely to be affected by fatigue-inducing schedules and sleep disruptions. Until recently, the FAA has blamed any fatigue-related incident on a failure of the controller to "manage" fatigue. The FAA's definition of "managing fatigue" equates to sleeping at different times each day, whenever the schedule allows. Unfortunately, life won't always permit that. The majority of the world operates on a different schedule, and family commitments, the occasional emergency, or even a neighbor's barking dog can undo the best attempts to get required rest.

In October of 2009, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and the FAA agreed to establish a joint workgroup to identify and mitigate workplace fatigue concerns. The workgroup engaged several leading scientists in fatigue studies. The results of the study were publicly released in March 2011 and contain twelve primary recommendations. To date, only one recommendation has been implemented. There is nothing groundbreaking about these recommendations. They are common sense solutions to a problem NATCA, the NTSB, and fatigue experts have consistently raised for years while past Administrations turned a blind eye. The recommendations are based on advice from NASA and the military and in line with international air traffic control best practices. If we are serious about addressing controller fatigue, then every recommendation must be adopted and implemented.

If accurate, long-term data was available, I believe that it would show that there is currently no sleeping epidemic among the 15,500-member controller workforce, despite the recent proliferation of news stories. I suggest that, except for the occasional deviation, over the years the rate of controllers falling asleep on duty has remained an extremely small yet consistent percentage. Among such a large workforce, there will always be some events, but 99.9% of controllers never have, nor never will, fall asleep on the job. Of those few that have, none purposely intended to fall asleep on duty. The cumulative effect of the fatigue-inducing schedule eventually causes a controller to succumb to the forces of nature. The work environment itself contributes to the problem. On midnight shifts, controllers often work alone in a darkened room full of electronic equipment; the only sound the constant hum of cooling fans and white noise. There is often very little air traffic in the early hours of the morning, with frequent long periods of inactivity.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) supports the scientific recommendations of the joint fatigue study released in March. We believe the problem is systemic and requires a corresponding systemic approach to the solution. One of the key recommendations is to allow controllers to rest on recuperative breaks. Regulated sleeping is permitted in foreign air traffic control systems, and has been proven to rejuvenate mental acuity and performance among controllers. Unfortunately, although the Federal Government funds billions of dollars of scientific research, politicians don't always concur with the experts. The Secretary of Transportation and the Administrator of the FAA have publicly declared, "Nobody will be paid to sleep". They are of the belief that the flying public cares more about what we do to achieve our goals than our actual performance. Other countries have already moved past this attitude and implemented structured rest periods during the workday.

NATCA will continue in its efforts to lead the FAA to safer scheduling practices and fatigue management practices. Until then, be assured that NATCA air traffic controllers are committed to doing their part to ensure safety. It is important that the public demand that elected politicians make decisions regarding aviation safety on sound scientific principles, and not traditional workplace policy.

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