FAA changes scheduling rules after another controller falls asleep

Yet another air traffic controller has fallen asleep on the job, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to change its scheduling practices.

Administrator Randy Babbitt announced Saturday that he, in consultation with the National Air Traffic Controllers Union, is prohibiting scheduling practices that "have been identified as those most likely to result in air traffic controller fatigue," according the FAA.

"There is no excuse for air traffic controllers to be sleeping on the job. We will do everything we can to put an end to this,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

The FAA is looking at ways to maximize rest but is not planning to make the details of the changes public on Saturday. Among the possible targets for changes is a midnight shift that now begins only eight hours after a controller's prior shift ends, an FAA official said.

The FAA announced it had suspended an air traffic controller early this morning for falling asleep while on duty during the midnight shift at a Miami control center. The incident did not result in any missed calls, unlike a similar incident at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., last month.

“According to a preliminary review of air traffic tapes, the controller did not miss any calls from aircraft and there was no operational impact,” the FAA stated.

Air traffic controllers union President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement that the union fully supports the FAA decisions.

“NATCA and the FAA are in agreement that fatigue and scheduling must be addressed, and I applaud and thank Administrator Babbitt for taking quick and decisive action today to address a large part of the problem and implement immediate steps,” he said. “This latest incident earlier today is of great concern, as it is never acceptable when we don’t provide the level of service expected and required of us on every shift. We take our responsibilities very seriously and believe fatigue is a significant factor in these instances.”

He said the fact that additional staff was on hand in Miami to back up the sleeping controller shows the FAA made a smart move last week when it decided to add additional midnight staff to airport towers.

The union will join the FAA administrator in touring the nation's facilities on Monday as part of the search for solutions. It said it wants changes to be based on a FAA-NATCA joint workforce on fatigue study.

The latest turn of events comes after Hank Krakowski, the FAA official in charge of airport flight towers resigned April 13.

The FAA originally added a second person to the tower at Washington's Reagan National in March after two planes were forced to land without assistance when the controller working a fourth consecutive overnight shift was sleeping. 

In total, seven confirmed and suspected instances of sleeping have occured in recent months. Controllers at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada, at Boeing Field in Seattle, and at McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tenn., were also confirmed to have fallen asleep on the job. Two controllers from Lubbock, Texas, are still under investigation for allegedly having fallen asleep.