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U.S. Controllers Can Use Radio, Books to Be Alert, FAA Says

U.S. air-traffic controllers can listen to radios and read to help stay awake during overnight shifts, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The agency for now is keeping so-called 2-2-1 schedules that allow controllers to work two evenings, followed by two day shifts and an overnight period, which a U.S. safety board has said runs counter to normal sleep-wake patterns.

The FAA announced the new procedures in an agreement reached with the controllers’ union and released today. The agency must “make sure we have the right policies in place to reduce the possibility of fatigue,” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement.

Nine controllers have been reported by the FAA as sleeping or unresponsive on the job since January. An agency-union working group established before the sleeping incidents became public developed the steps in the new agreement.

Workers can listen to the radio while on the job between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and read “appropriate” material, as traffic permits, according to the agreement.

While there is no change in scheduling practices for now, the agency and union will “incorporate fatigue science” for schedules starting Sept. 1, 2012.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates aviation accidents and makes non-binding recommendations, told the FAA in 2007 it should work with controllers to revise schedules. Sixty-one percent of controllers worked schedules that opposed normal sleep-wake patterns, the NTSB found.

Long Weekends

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., and a fifth shift that begins at 10 p.m. on the fourth day, which allows the workers to have a longer weekend.

The FAA and controllers are working on reducing the risk of fatigue between the fourth and fifth shifts on those types of schedules, according to today’s statement.

“We fully support these recommendations,” Paul Rinaldi, president of the union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in the FAA statement. “They are common-sense solutions.”

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