Report cites red flags for fatigue risk among air traffic controllers

The Federal Aviation Administration needs to take steps to reduce fatigue and stress among the air traffic controllers who oversee 45,000 flights daily, a report warned on Friday.

The three-person panel of scientific fatigue experts called on the agency to update its staffing models; centralize information about its management and tracking of fatigue risk; and require 10 to 12 hours between shifts. The FAA should also form a working group that could use the 114-page report as a basis for evaluating and determining next steps, it said.

“This report is intended to provide a tool for the FAA to pursue actions that address the identified strengths and risks in air traffic operations,” the authors wrote. “There are many strengths identified that the FAA can build upon and identified vulnerabilities that can be addressed through sustained efforts to minimize or mitigate fatigue risks.”

While they acknowledged that such concerns about fatigue are not a new problem, the panel underscored urgency.

“Without action, these risks will continue to grow and become more severe over time with individual and system cumulative effects,” the report said.

FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker announced the formation of the panel in December, spurred in part by conversations with controllers and by growing concerns about an increase in the number of serious near miss incidents at airports across the country. In all, the FAA logged 23 serious near misses at airports from October 2022 to September 2023. Other kinds of incidents occurred in the air, with planes reportedly flying close enough to each other to trigger warning alarms.

“We are committed to a sustained effort to address controller fatigue and ensure our airspace is the safest in the world,” he said in a statement. “These recommendations will significantly aid our efforts, providing a road map to mitigate this risk for our agency.”


Whitaker said he would act immediately on one of the panel’s recommendations: Requiring 10 hours between shifts and 12 hours off before a midnight shift, effective in 90 days.

But the new policy could have the opposite of its intended effect, said the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which argued that the best way to reduce fatigue is to hire more controllers.

“NATCA is concerned that with an already understaffed controller workforce, immediate application of the Administrator’s new rules may lead to coverage holes in air traffic facilities’ schedules,” the union said in a statement. “Requiring controllers to work mandatory overtime to fill those holes would increase fatigue and make the new policy nothing more than window dressing.”

At a hearing in November, before a Senate subcommittee on aviation safety, safety experts, including Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, voiced concern about reports that controllers were being forced to work 60-hour weeks as they struggled to keep up with the demand for air travel.

“All the red flags are there,” Homendy told reporters. “We are sounding the alarm bells and we need action. Frankly, I don’t want to hear about more meetings. I don’t want to hear about conferences. I don’t want to hear about summits. Goddamn, do something.”

On Friday, Homendy praised Whitaker for addressing long-standing concerns about controller fatigue but said more work needs to be done.

“The safety of our skies depends on air traffic controllers who are well-trained and well-rested,” she said in a statement.

Another report, released in November by a panel of experts assembled in response to those near misses, also warned that outdated technology and increased reliance on overtime to staff air-traffic control facilities were putting aviation safety at risk.

There are 1,000 fewer qualified controllers working today than a decade ago, according to NATCA. As a result, 40% of air-traffic control facilities rely on employees working six days a week at least once a month. The group’s president, Rich Santa, told the Senate panel the shortage means that some controllers were on permanent six-day-a-week schedules.

The FAA met its goal of hiring 1,500 controllers in 2023 and is aiming to hire an additional 1,800 this year, which Whitaker said the agency is on track to meet. Still, many trainees — almost one-third — leave before they complete training, underscoring the staffing challenge.

While additional staffing can offer relief from overtime and extended workweeks, the panel noted in its report it can only go so far.

“Even optimal staffing does not eliminate the inherent biological fatigue risks that exist in any around-the-clock operational setting,” the report said. “Sleep loss and circadian disruption created by night work and rotating shifts engender known safety and performance decrements that can lead to errors, incidents, and accidents.”

The panel reviewed more than 100 documents, visited four air traffic control facilities and held 25 meetings over 10 weeks as it compiled its report, which asked how workforce, work requirements and scheduling practices for controllers relate to current science on human sleep, circadian needs and fatigue considerations.

The report also identified smaller steps to help employees better manage concerns about fatigue, including ensuring the health insurance programs for controllers cover sleep disorders, diagnosis and treatment and standardizing the light levels in facilities, which could improve alertness. A study on the impact of lighting on NASA mission controllers found that bright, blue-enriched lighting in recreational break rooms improved controller alertness and performance on the night shift, it noted.

The panel included fatigue expert and former National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind; Erin E. Flynn-Evans, director of the fatigue countermeasures laboratory at NASA Ames Research Center; and Charles A. Czeisler, director of the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School.