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Winter 2014 Vol. 14 Number 2

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The Frontline of Safe Skies


Air traffic controllers are the frontline operators of the nation's airspace, safely and efficiently keeping aircraft separate from one another and the terrain. The Federal Aviation Administration employs about 15,000 air traffic controllers, at a cost of approximately $2.8 billion a year or 18 percent of the total FAA budget.

But what is the right number of controllers needed to ensure safe and cost-effective services nationally and at each of FAA's 315 facilities? There are many difficulties in determining this, including the lack of definitive methods for relating staffing levels to safety.

A recent report from the National Research Council took a look at FAA's staffing models and found them suitable for developing initial estimates of the number of controllers required at terminal facilities, but the models used to estimate staffing levels for the centers that control air traffic between airports can be improved. FAA also should analyze a wide range of data, such as accident and incident reports and voluntary reports by controllers in order to pinpoint relationships between staffing and safety.

In addition, shift schedules that contribute to fatigue -- especially those in which controllers work five eight-hour shifts over four consecutive days, the last one being a midnight shift -- are of particular concern, the report says. Although the schedule is popular among controllers because it allows them 80 hours off afterward, it likely results in severely reduced cognitive performance during the midnight shift due to fatigue. FAA established a fatigue risk management program, but recent budget cuts eliminated the program's capability to monitor concerns proactively and to investigate whether initiatives to reduce fatigue risks are providing the intended benefits. As a matter of priority, FAA should collaborate with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to develop and implement an enhanced tool for all facilities that is capable of creating efficient work schedules that incorporate fatigue mitigation strategies.

FAA's headquarters provides no consistent guidance or tools to local facilities to help them develop their operational schedules. As a result, each facility develops its own schedule independently of FAA's staff planning process, which may not be the most efficient or incorporate best practices in fatigue risk management.

The report adds that FAA should ensure that staffing continues to be appropriate as it implements the new air traffic operations environment associated with the Next Generation Air Transportation System, a modernization initiative to shift air traffic management from ground-based radar to a satellite system.

-- Dana Korsen

The Federal Aviation Administration's Approach for Determining Future Air Traffic Controller Staffing Needs. Committee for Study of Federal Aviation Administration Air Traffic Controller Staffing; Transportation Research Board, and Board on Human-Systems Integration, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2014, 138 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-29513-0; $41.00; available from the Transportation Research Board, tel. 202-334-3213).

The study committee was chaired by Amy Pritchett, David S. Lewis Associate Professor of Cognitive Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta. The study was funded by the Federal Aviation Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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