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FAA sets new procedures for sleepy air traffic controllers

Federal officials are moving swiftly to correct the conditions that have left air traffic controllers dozing. On Sunday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced four immediate changes to FAA procedures.

By Staff writer / April 17, 2011

J. Randolph Babbitt, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), testifies during the House Transportation Aviation Subcommittee. On Sunday, the FAA announced new procedures to reduce fatigue in air traffic controllers.

Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly)

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Federal officials are moving swiftly to correct the conditions that have left air traffic controllers dozing while aircraft circled overhead seeking guidance for landing at the nation’s airports.

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Over the weekend, at least one more controller was found to have been asleep on the job – this one early Saturday morning at Miami – bringing to seven the number of recent incidents.

"I don't know when I've ever been madder. I'm outraged about this," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Fox News Sunday. "We're doing everything we can 24-7 to correct this problem."

LaHood announced four immediate changes in procedures to be implemented by the Federal Aviation Administration:

The minimum time off between controllers’ shifts is being increased from eight hours to nine hours; controllers will not be allowed to swap shifts without having had nine hours off since their last shift; controllers won’t be able to shift to an unscheduled midnight shift following a day off; and FAA managers will schedule their shifts to ensure greater coverage during early morning and late night hours.

“Research shows us that giving people the chance for even an additional one hour of rest during critical periods in a schedule can improve work performance and reduce the potential for fatigue,” FAA administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement Sunday. “Taking advantage of the time you have to rest is also a professional responsibility.”

Part of the problem is that controllers have been scheduling their shifts into a four-day week, allowing a three-day weekend. Also, the times of day and night worked frequently change from week to week, throwing off sleep cycles.

Asked on Fox News why his department had not recognized the problem sooner, LaHood said, "We thought controllers really were getting the rest that they needed.”

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