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Sleeping air-traffic controllers show that fatigue issue still plagues FAA

FAA official resigns following string of incidents involving sleeping air-traffic controllers. Passenger rights group praises decision to add second overnight controller at 27 airports.

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Even as transportation officials grapple with how to handle controller fatigue, a NASA program, The Aviation Reporting Data Base, allows aviation workers to have their say. The program invites controllers, pilots, and others to anonymously report irregularities and make suggestions for how they could have been avoided.

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Controllers whose reports appear in the database describe juggling multiple planes on runways that are sometimes hard to identify. For example, a controller at Hobby Airport in Houston said that a plane was instructed to taxi across a runway where another plane was about to land last July. The mistake was noticed in time.

“With all of the closed runways and taxiways, and the bad weather and new taxi rules, I was feeling a little fatigued,” said the controller.

A controller at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, Minn. described a plane landing on the wrong runway one night last August. The controller said the problem could not be identified until after the plane touched down, because of the angle of the control tower to the runway.

“The number of aircraft landing on the wrong runway at this airport is out of control,” said the controller. “It was not an issue tonight, but someday it will be, and that thought is scary."

It's unclear whether the controllers added to overnight shifts will be new hires or come from a reshuffling of staff. As troublesome as the fatigue problem may be, some officials are wary of devoting added resources to low-traffic times of the day.

“This increase in staffing, when there is little to no traffic, also misdirects our resources and focus away from congested air traffic control facilities,” Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida said in a statement.

Air traffic controllers made about $107,000 a year in 2009, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Last month, an air-traffic controller at Washington’s Reagan National Airport was suspended for sleeping on the job. Though no one was injured, two planes were forced to land without clearance after being unable to rouse the controller.

Other incidents of unresponsive controllers occurred at a Preston Smith International Airport in Lubbock, Texas, on March 29, and at King County International Airport/Boeing Field in Seattle, where a controller had fallen asleep once during a shift on April 11, and twice during a Jan. 6 shift.

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