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New rules set for air traffic controllers

Mon., April 18, 2011

More staffing, longer between-shift breaks ordered

WASHINGTON – Air traffic controllers will be required to take at least nine hours off between shifts – one more hour than the current practice – and supervisors will work more overnight hours under new rules announced Sunday.

Controllers will not be permitted to lengthen their weekends by swapping shifts if that could put them on unscheduled midnight duty or deprive them of enough rest, Federal Aviation Administration officials said in a written statement.

Managers also will be required to schedule their shifts to encourage greater coverage in the early morning and late night hours. The new scheduling rules are being instituted immediately and will be fully in effect by the end of the week, the FAA said.

The changes are partly the result of interviews with controllers who fell asleep during their shifts in highly publicized cases this year, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

“I don’t know when I’ve ever been madder,” LaHood said of the recent reports of controllers sleeping on the job. “We’re not going to stand by and let that happen.”

Last month, after a sleeping controller at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., failed to assist two jetliners on approach, the FAA told officials around the country to report all such instances directly to them rather than handling them locally.

Since then, six cases have come to light, including one involving a medical flight unable to contact a lone controller working overnight at the Reno, Nev., airport.

Early Saturday morning, a controller reported a co-worker asleep at the switches at a radar center near Miami.

The FAA has since put an additional controller on midnight shifts at airports that previously had only one.

But LaHood said Sunday that controllers themselves also must shoulder their share of the responsibility.

They can’t make changes to the assigned shift schedule or engage in off-duty activities that will make them too tired to report for duty, he said.

All of the sleeping controllers in recent cases have been suspended from duty, and LaHood said it was possible that some or all of them would be fired. Union contracts require a full investigation of such cases before termination of employment.


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