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Fatigue, bathroom breaks cause air accidents and delays

Sleep and bathroom breaks are apparently hard to come by for some air traffic controllers, a problem that has led to runway accidents and flight delays. In the past two days, the National Transportation Safety Board (NFSB) and a news report in the Boston Globe have called attention to these issues, which have been attributed to poor scheduling practices by the FAA.

On Tuesday, the NTSB issued a letter detailing the role of fatigued air traffic controllers in several recent accidents and near-accidents at airports around the country. The letter highlighted a Comair crash last August in Lexington, Kentucky, in which 49 people were killed after the on-duty air traffic controller directed the pilots to take off from the wrong runway. The controller acknowledged he was working on two hours of sleep in between two shifts scheduled within a 24-hour period.

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The letter went on to criticize the FAA for failing to take the issue of controller fatigue seriously, having made no real progress after advisory groups made suggestions for combating the problem in 2001. "The Safety Board is concerned that because of the lack of FAA action on the issue, controllers frequently operate in a fatigued state and that action needed now must go beyond simple evaluations," said NTSB President Patrick Forrey in the letter. Forrey went on to make several recommendations to the FAA, including revising scheduling policies and developing a "fatigue awareness and countermeasures training program."

A Boston Globe article published yesterday focused on another problem caused by FAA scheduling: Flights to and from the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport waiting for clearance because the single air traffic controller on duty was on a bathroom break. Delays of nearly 20 minutes were reported. The writer, Mac Daniel, sees further problems such as this ahead, as about 70 percent of air traffic staffers will be eligible to retire next year.

It's hard to say whether these embarrassing developments will result in better scheduling practices with the FAA and the controllers union currently battling over a new contract. Reuters reports the union has complained about understaffing while the FAA is denying that staffing is the issue. Given these poor relations and the FAA's history of ignoring safety recommendations even after serious accidents, it seems unlikely anything will change. And once again, it's the airline passengers who will get the short end of the stick next time an air traffic controller falls asleep or really has to go and has no backup.

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