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  • Study Finds Severe Fatigue Raises Potential For Deadly Mistakes Among Air Traffic Controllers

    Air traffic controllers suffer from chronic fatigue that makes them prone to potentially deadly mistakes, according to a study released Monday that the federal government tried to keep secret for nearly four years.

    The study was conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) back in 2011, but its disconcerting findings were hidden from the press until The Associated Press was somehow able to obtain a copy. The organization had made multiple Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the study, but all had been denied. The reason for the FAA’s intransigence on the matter is unclear.

    In the study, the FAA found that nearly one in five air traffic controllers had made major errors, such as letting planes fly too close to one another, within the past year. Over half those errors, the FAA estimated, were the result of fatigue brought on by insufficient rest.

    The study made its findings by surveying 3,268 controllers about their work habits and by closely tracking the sleep and work habits of over 200 controllers across the country. The in-depth portion of the study found that 76 percent of controllers ended up developing severe fatigue at some point in their schedules, putting them at risk of falling asleep on the job or making significant errors. (RELATED: Civil Rights Commissioner Bashes FAA For Race-Based Hiring)

    While controllers only work eight-hours shifts at a time, sleep deprivation can set in because of the quirks of their schedule. Many controllers use a schedule approach where they have five eight-hour shifts in a four-day period. This allows them to have a three-day weekend but also leads to them sometimes having only an eight-hour break between two shifts, causing them to be under-rested. Fatigue also sets in when controllers are assigned midnight shifts, throwing off the body’s Circadian rhythms and leaving them unable to sleep sufficiently beforehand. More than half of controllers said that at least once they had fallen asleep or lost focus while commuting to or from a midnight shift.

    The report itself was prompted by several embarrassing incidents of controller fatigue, including one at Virginia’s Reagan National Airport where two planes had to land without assistance after the only controller on duty fell asleep. In addition to commissioning the study, the FAA also lengthened the mandatory break between shifts to nine hours and required at least two controllers to be present on an overnight shift.

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