Lone Controller Silence at Reagan Airport May Show Fatigue

Reagan National Airport
US Airways aircraft sit on the tarmac at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Radio silence at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s tower yesterday during two early-morning landings renews concerns about U.S. controllers working when they’re too tired to function, after the lone worker on duty fell asleep.

The National Transportation Safety Board said today the 20-year controller revealed he fell asleep while working his fourth consecutive overnight shift, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., according to an e-mailed statement from the agency. The NTSB said it interviewed the controller, who was not named, earlier today and will study the role of fatigue in investigating the incident.

Sleepiness “will be one of the issues you would want to look at,” Steven Chealander, a former NTSB member and American captain, said in an interview. “Fatigue can degrade your performance. You don’t have to fall asleep to be fatigued.”

The Federal Aviation Administration today said it suspended the controller while it investigates. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said yesterday Reagan’s tower will get a second nighttime controller, and he asked the FAA to study staffing levels at other airports around the country.

The pilots for AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and United Continental Holdings Inc.’s United Airlines were unable to hail the worker on approaches to the airport after midnight. Both planes landed safely with assistance from a regional control center.

The United flight was an Airbus SAS A320 carrying 63 passengers and five crew members from Chicago’s O’Hare airport, according to the airline. The American plane was a Boeing Co. 737 from Miami with 91 passengers and six crew members aboard, according to that carrier.

Scheduling ‘Problematic’

The controllers’ union and safety advocates have voiced concerns about fatigue for years.

The NTSB four years ago asked the FAA to work with the controllers’ union to revise work schedules and practices, and to develop a fatigue awareness program. The safety board singled out the common practice of scheduling controllers to work increasingly early shifts over a week as “especially problematic.”

“It’s coming down to the bottom line dollar, where the FAA wants to staff facilities at midnight with one person,” said Patrick Forrey, former president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. He said there are several towers in the U.S. with only one worker at that hour. The FAA was unable to immediately provide figures on how common the practice is.

The union released a statement today applauding LaHood for ordering the additional staff at Reagan. The lone controller on duty was an FAA supervisor, the union said. “One-person shifts are unsafe. Period,” according to the statement.

The NTSB in its 2007 recommendation pointed to an earlier study by the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute that found “widespread evidence of fatigue” among controllers.

Nodding Off

That study included survey findings that 60 percent to 80 percent of responding controllers had caught themselves about to doze off during early morning or midnight shifts, according to the NTSB. More than two-thirds reported attention lapses while driving to work for early morning or midnight shifts, and more than a third reported falling asleep while driving to or from a midnight shift.

“There was a lot of concern then about the schedules,” Kitty Higgins, a former NTSB member and now president of The Higgins Company, who, along with Chealander, approved the controller fatigue recommendation to the FAA.

“Many of them liked to work the back of the clock, it gives them more days off. That’s a benefit, but there are also risks involved,” she said.

The board found in 2007 that the lone controller on duty when a plane used the wrong runway in Lexington, Kentucky, and crashed, killing 49 on board, had slept for about two of the 24 hours before the accident.

The board couldn’t determine the extent to which tiredness affected the controller’s decision to not monitor the plane’s departure.

Long Weekends

Sixty-one percent of controllers worked schedules that opposed normal sleep-wake patterns, the NTSB found. A schedule may look like this, the NTSB said then: The first day, a 3 p.m. shift start; the second day, a 2 p.m. start; the third day, 7 a.m.; the fourth day, 6 a.m. The worker may return to work a fifth shift at 10 p.m. on the fourth day to get a longer weekend, the board said.

Adding a staff member to towers overnight would allow one worker to relieve a colleague who is tired, ill, or needed to use the bathroom, Forrey said.

Chealander, now vice president of training and flight operations for Airbus SAS’ North American unit, said that while it is not clear what happened in the Washington tower, fatigue remains a concern in the industry.

“We can regulate the heck out of things, at the same time it is incumbent upon us as employees to be ready to go to work,” Chealander said. “If we’re not ready to go to work, then we don’t go. We have got to be the adults in all of that and be ready to do the job that we signed up to do.”

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