Air Traffic Controller Fatigue Risks Lead FAA to Require Greater Rest Periods Between Shifts

As the aviation industry grapples with an increased demand, new FAA rules will require additional time between shifts to address serious safety risks posed by air traffic controller fatigue.

Following several near plane crashes in recent years, federal aviation officials have announced a plan to extend the number of hours between shifts to help address air traffic controller fatigue risks, and to bolster air travel safety.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced the air traffic controller shift changes on April 19, which will require a minimum of 10 hours off between shifts and at least 12 hours off prior to any midnight shift.

Air traffic controllers are crucial for both the safety and efficiency of air travel at airports. They are primarily responsible for the safe takeoff, landing, and routing of aircraft within their airspace, ensuring that planes maintain safe distances to prevent collisions. In addition to managing safety, they also enhance the efficiency of air traffic by sequencing aircraft landings and takeoffs to maximize both airport and airspace capacity, which helps in reducing delays and maintaining schedules.

The new rule change comes in response to recommendations provided by a team of researchers that were commissioned in December 2023, to advise the FAA on air traffic controller fatigue risks and how to combat these preventable safety hazards to protect millions of controllers and passengers traveling through U.S. airspace daily.

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New Air Traffic Controller Shift Requirements

FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker indicated in a recent press release that reforms are being implemented to address the need for increased rest periods for air traffic controllers, based on the recommendations from an expert panel’s report.

In the report, titled Assessing Fatigue Risk in FAA Air Traffic Operations, the team of researchers evaluated three areas of concern surrounding air traffic control, which included workforce, work requirements and scheduling practices.

Throughout dozens of meetings with air traffic controllers and data collected from 700,000 individual work hours and days off from more than 10,000 controllers during January 2024, the team of experts identified critical issues regarding the fatigue experienced by controllers and their off-duty recovery periods.

According to Whitaker, the panel’s report outlined several long term and systemic changes needed to ensure air traffic controllers are sufficiently rested before flight schedules, with an immediate need to extend time-off between flights.

“As an initial step, I will require 10 hours off between shifts, and 12 hours off before a midnight shift, effective in 90 days, consistent with the expert panel’s recommendations,” Whitaker said in a press release issued on April 19, 2024. “I am also directing the Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service to ensure the agency has a robust methodology to ensure compliance with this direction.”

Alongside improving scheduling practices, the panel further highlighted the need to expand the air traffic controller work force, which has struggled to maintain during the COVID-19 impact on travel bans and hiring freezes.

Whitaker stated that over the past two years, the FAA has intensified its efforts to speed up recruitment, beginning to address the longstanding shortage of air traffic controllers. Last year, the FAA met its hiring target by recruiting 1,500 controllers and has set an even higher goal of 1,800 for this year, which the agency believes it is poised to achieve.

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