Quiet Air-Traffic Towers Should Be Closed Nights: Report

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration should close minimally used air-traffic facilities during overnight hours to reduce controller fatigue and save money, a government report concluded.

The Transportation Department’s inspector general said 72 towers and radar rooms don’t handle enough flight traffic overnight to stay open. The report, released today, recommended the FAA develop a plan for reducing hours at those facilities and report back within 180 days.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered a second overnight controller at facilities that had only one on duty after a series of incidents in 2011 in which controllers fell asleep or became unresponsive. Twenty-seven of those 30 facilities didn’t have enough work to be open overnight, the report said.

That policy has cost the FAA about $1.9 million a year, whereas closing the towers at night may save as much as $11 million annually, the report said.

“By reducing services at these facilities during the midnight shift, the agency could reduce costs,” the report said.

Bloomberg News reported last year that air-traffic facilities handling as little as one flight an hour on overnight shifts were kept open 24 hours a day because of pressure on the FAA from members of Congress.

Congress’ Mandate

Agency logs revealed at least 26 instances in which lawmakers from both parties pushed the agency on controller staffing levels or the location of air-traffic facilities from 2010 through May 2012.

A total of 72 air-traffic facilities open 24 hours a day don’t meet the FAA’s own minimum standards for traffic to justify full-time service, the agency’s Office of Financial Services determined according to the report. A facility must handle at least four flights an hour for four consecutive hours to remain open, according to FAA standards.

The FAA agrees that staffing needs to be reviewed at those locations, towers and radar-tracking facilities within 50 miles of an airport, the agency said in a response to the IG report. It plans to determine whether to make adjustments within the 180 days recommended by the IG, the FAA said in the response.

So far, agency attempts to reduce air-traffic staffing or to close towers have met stiff resistance from lawmakers. An FAA plan to furlough controllers and to halt U.S. funding for 149 small-airport towers operated by private contractors was blocked April 26 by Congress.

Fatigue Examined

The FAA had planned the reductions to decrease spending under mandatory cuts required by sequestration. Congress gave the FAA authority to shift money from other accounts to avoid the air-traffic cuts.

The report by Jeffrey Guzzetti, assistant inspector general for aviation audits, was ordered by Congress in 2012 to review FAA’s fatigue policies a year after the sleeping controller incidents.

Following that controversy and recommendations by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA imposed new rules giving controllers an extra hour off between shifts, from a minimum of 8 hours to 9 hours.

It isn’t clear whether the new schedules are helping because FAA doesn’t have a way to measure improvements, the report said.

Unlike adding the controller at some facilities, increasing the time between shifts had almost no effect on costs, the review found.

Improving Alertness

Another policy to reduce fatigue, which implicitly allows napping during midnight shifts, isn’t clearly defined, the IG said. Controllers are encouraged to take breaks and to “apply fatigue mitigation techniques,” according to FAA guidance.

While some air-traffic managers said napping during breaks was permitted, others said the rules didn’t explicitly allow them. They feared that allowing subordinates to sleep during breaks would run afoul of the rules.

Research by the FAA and others has found that a nap during a midnight shift can improve alertness and performance of workers, according to the report. Managers interviewed by the IG were mostly supportive of napping so long as it didn’t violate the rules.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.