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FAA Ignores Public Safety Again: Exhausted Controllers Forced to Work - (4/17/2008)

CONTACTS:   Doug Church, 202-220-9802; Victor Santore (NATCA Southern Region VP), 516-398-6572


WASHINGTON – Do you think the air traffic controllers directing your flights this busy spring and summer will be well-rested? Many of them won't be.

Controllers work for the Federal Aviation Administration, of course, which continues to show its refusal to understand the effects of fatigue, despite the fact that the NTSB has recommended the FAA work with controllers on this issue. The NTSB, in fact, has put controller fatigue on its list of top safety concerns. The FAA also possesses a reckless ignorance of the consequences of a worsening staffing crisis that has forced fewer controllers to work more traffic in exhausting, demoralizing conditions where overtime is assigned and breaks are fewer and shorter than ever.

Here’s the latest example of the FAA’s “just when you thought you had seen it all” behavior: Veteran air traffic controller Kevin Campbell, who works at Birmingham (Ala.) Tower, called in sick last month before a grueling overnight shift because he didn’t feel rested enough. He specifically told the watch supervisor he hadn’t been able to get any sleep and was “incapacitated for duty.”

Before Sept. 3, 2006, when the FAA imposed draconian work rules on controllers against their will, this would have been the end of the story. But because the FAA’s imposed work rules include a section that prohibits controllers from using their accrued leave to be excused from working due to fatigue, local FAA management in Birmingham took a closer look at what Campbell did. Last week, the FAA issued a formal letter to Campbell accusing him of abusing his sick leave, citing the incident last month and a ridiculous episode earlier this year in which Campbell was accused of not obtaining prior approval for sick leave despite the fact that at the time, an illness made him medically ineligible to work as a controller and the supervisor had no other work for him to perform. The letter imposed draconian restrictions on all leave usage and threatened Campbell with removal from Federal service.

The provision of the FAA’ s imposed work rules dealing with this issue reads as follows: “Sick leave cannot be granted for rest or minor inconveniences.” 

Just days before the Sept. 3, 2006 forced imposition of this rule, an FAA spokesperson stated publicly that, "We would never have a controller controlling traffic who was too tired to work," adding that a controller can request several different types of leave if they are too tired to direct aircraft. But then the FAA changed all that, granting itself full authority to force controllers to work, regardless of whether the controller feels too tired and incapacitated. Said NATCA President Patrick Forrey: “We can only surmise the FAA has done this because of critical staffing levels which are exacerbating the fatigue issue.”

The FAA’s response to this issue is best summed up by a spokesman’s comments last year: “Fatigue is such a vague issue.”

As the Orlando Sentinel put it in an editorial on Dec. 24, 2007: “All else being equal, whom would you choose? A fatigued or a well-rested surgeon to operate on you? A fatigued or a well-rested explosives expert to dismantle a bomb? A fatigued or a well-rested air traffic controller to relay instructions to pilots?”


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