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Fatigue in US air travel system: It's not just air traffic controllers

Air travel is safe (and most air traffic controllers don’t nod off), but there are warning signs aviation officials must grapple with.

By Staff writer / April 25, 2011

A passenger jet flies past the control tower at Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport, scene of two ‘unresponsive tower’ incidents in late March.

Cliff Owen/AP

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A series of high-profile events, from near misses in the air to sleeping air-traffic controllers on the ground, have rattled air travelers nationwide. They worry that the US aviation system is becoming increasingly overstretched. But the incidents are less a sign of an immediate crisis than a glimpse of the challenges that lie ahead as a generation of traffic controllers retire and air traffic continues to rise, aviation analysts say.

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They note that accidents in US skies have not increased. Measured in fatalities, the nation’s airways remain at historically high levels of safety. But the events serve as an important reminder that constant vigilance is needed to maintain that track record on safety. Among the warning signs:

•A year ago there was a string of close calls in which aircraft passed within a mile, and sometimes much less, of one another. That’s an alarming proximity, given that planes travel at such high speeds.

•More recently, a surprising maintenance worry emerged when a hole opened in the roof of a Boeing 737 departing from Phoenix, suggesting that the planes can develop structural weaknesses much sooner than engineers had realized.

•Then came reports of traffic controllers asleep or distracted while on the job, which prompted a call by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a “top to bottom review” of traffic-control systems.

Indeed, analysts say, the difficulties for US aviation go beyond just a few tired controllers on the late shift and suggest that it’s time for the US aviation system to upgrade everything from training to communications equipment.

“They’ve got a couple layers of challenges” at the FAA alone, says William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, an independent group that draws support from the aviation industry.

One is that safety advances often hinge on navigating political hurdles. For example, aviation experts cite scientific research suggesting that allowing a nap by traffic controllers on the midnight shift would improve safety by easing fatigue. But that idea bumps up against the political instinct to call any sleep during a shift unacceptable.

Industry groups, rightly or wrongly, can play a heavy role through lobbying. Airline companies, citing what they say will be high costs, have opposed rules designed to ensure better rest for cockpit crews in the wake of a Buffalo, N.Y., crash (attributed partly to fatigue) that killed 50 people in 2009.

Another challenge lies within FAA ranks: trying to uphold high standards within a large and fast-changing workforce. In addition to a spate of air-traffic controllers found sleeping on the overnight shift, one in Ohio was censured for watching a film on a DVD player while he was on duty.

“There is a concern that there has been a fall-off in professionalism,” says Mr. Voss, who has worked as a controller. He characterizes traffic controllers as “bright people who can get out of hand if not carefully managed.”

A huge retirement wave is under way in control towers. One generation, which arrived in the early 1980s after President Reagan fired striking controllers, is departing. Voss says he expects the newcomers to do well. But it’s a big task to ensure that the incoming ranks are well trained.

Some aviation experts are encouraged by the actions of FAA administrator Randy Babbitt, as well as his background as a commercial pilot and union leader.

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