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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.

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“They finally have an FAA administrator who knows what an airplane is, knows what air-traffic control is, and knows what management is,” says Michael Boyd of the aviation consulting firm Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo.

Mr. Babbitt, he says, has moved quickly in response to recent problems, enlisting the controllers’ union to align with him on a revised policy for rest between shifts and late-night scheduling. The agency is also putting a second controller on duty at 27 airports that had been staffed by just one controller during midnight shifts.

More broadly, Babbitt is seeking to build a new culture of open reporting of problems before they result in fatal accidents.

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“It’s only when people know that they can raise their hand – ‘There’s a problem here’ – that’s when we’re going to make the big leaps forward in safety,” he said in a speech soon after taking the job in 2009.

“I’m a huge fan of that approach,” says Sid McGuirk, who teaches traffic control at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Some air-safety experts argue that the FAA’s initial response, mandating nine hours off between shifts rather than eight, won’t be enough to significantly reduce fatigue.

But, more broadly, much is going right. In recent years accidents have caused just 0.01 death per 100 million passenger miles traveled by commercial airlines, making it a safer mode of travel than car, bus, or train. The corresponding number for cars, for example, is 0.75.

Some of the incidents that have grabbed headlines haven’t compromised safety. It wasn’t appropriate that a plane carrying first lady Michelle Obama got within three miles of a military cargo jet as the planes approached for landing near Washington on April 19. But the aircraft weren’t in immediate danger. Similarly, although air-traffic controllers in other incidents shouldn’t have been asleep, pilots have procedures for late-night landings at “uncontrolled” towers.

And despite the hole that ripped open on a Southwest Airlines flight, most aviation experts don’t see so-called “metal fatigue” on aging aircraft as a major safety hazard. For one thing, the typical US airliner hasn’t been through nearly as many takeoffs and landings (called pressurization cycles) as that particular 737.

Still, amid federal budget pressures and forecasts for US air traffic to double by 2031, there’s a strong case for the industry and regulators to keep pushing for a stronger culture of safety. Alongside human professionalism, that means implementing a new generation of communications systems.

Satellite tracking and other technology hold the potential for boosting safety and routing jets for greater fuel efficiency, but the FAA’s plans for “NextGen” systems have been fraught with delays and questions about whether the proposals will deliver the expected gains at a reasonable cost.

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