WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Sunday issued new work rules aimed at preventing air traffic controllers from falling asleep on the job during overnight hours.
Six separate incidents have alarmed regulators and safety advocates in recent weeks, including a lone controller at Washington’s Reagan National Airport who fell asleep on March 23 with two jetliners en route.
The new rules give controllers an extra hour of rest time between shifts and require FAA managers to work more early-morning and late-night hours.
The changes, which the FAA said would be fully in force by the end of this week, do not reduce tower operations or alter airline flight schedules.
“I don’t know when I’ve ever been madder,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told “Fox News Sunday”.
“On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps. They are going to be paid for the job they are trained to do, which is to guide planes safely.”
The scandal prompted the resignation last week of the FAA official responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of the 15,000 air traffic controllers at more than 400 airports.
The biggest airports, including in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, have more than one controller on duty at all times. But some of those have not been immune to problems, including Miami, where one of 12 controllers on duty one night was found sleeping.
The new FAA rules give air traffic controllers at least nine hours of rest between shifts, instead of the current eight 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.
The rules prevent controllers from swapping midnight shifts unless the updated schedule includes an adequate period of rest. Controllers also will no longer be able to take an unscheduled midnight shift after a day off.
Babbitt and Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, were scheduled to follow up the rules’ release this week with visits to six airports beginning in Atlanta on Monday.
Senior FAA and union officials were scheduled to visit other airports over the next few weeks.
As part of the new effort to keep controllers awake, the FAA said it would also develop a fatigue education program and commission an independent review of the training curriculum and qualifications required of controllers.
The union was expected to expand its focus on peer-to-peer education for controllers.
Reporting by David Morgan; editing by Mohammad Zargham