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WHAT OTHERS SAY: Too many airline controllers asleep at the switch

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 | 4:56 p.m. CDT

The news has been scarier than usual: Iraq is on the boil, which has serious implications for U.S. security; random and mass-shooting tragedies seem to be coming at us weekly.

Add to these the fact that air traffic controllers are too sleepy, and anyone who boards a plane should be very afraid. The controllers are suffering from chronic fatigue while on the job — the task of keeping the millions of people who fly from here to there safe in the air.

It remains a major threat to the safety of the flying public that the Federal Aviation Administration must address immediately.

It's not as if the FAA had no idea that too many of its 15,000 air traffic controllers are at risk of nodding off or sluggish thinking. Three years ago, it was disclosed that there were controllers who were falling asleep in front of their screens, which forced the FAA to take a closer look at work scheduling, which has contributed to the problem.

This latest disclosure is a result of a report, mandated by Congress, from the National Research Council. At issue, short term, is the policy that allows controllers to work five eight-hour shifts over four consecutive days — the last one being a midnight shift.

Controllers love it because they get 80 hours — the equivalent of two traditional work weeks — off before they have to return to work. However, the report says that this scheduling likely results in "severely reduced cognitive performance" during the midnight shift because of fatigue.

The schedule might be popular, but it's a dangerous one. The FAA should sit down with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and develop scheduling that reduces fatigue on the job and increases flight safety.

To its credit, the FAA imposed a fatigue risk management program after several controllers were caught sleeping on the job a few years ago. Cutbacks, however, have thwarted the program's effectiveness.

This is not encouraging news. Neither is what's roaring down the pike, coming straight at helpless plane passengers and crew members at the mercy of air traffic controllers who might — or might not — be at the top of their game.

The FAA is confronting a deluge of retirements. Controllers are required to retire when they turn 56. The agency will have to replace about two-thirds of this workforce — 10,000 controllers — during the next 10 years.

Flying shouldn't be a crapshoot because someone was asleep at the switch.

Copyright Miami Herald. Distributed by The Associated Press.


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