FAA’s Controller Scheduling Practices Can Impact Human Fatigue, Controller Performance, and Agency Costs
The Nation’s air traffic controllers play an important role in maintaining the safety of the National Airspace System. However, in 2011, a series of highly publicized incidents occurred during which air traffic controllers either fell asleep on duty or became unresponsive. These events raised questions about the impact of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) scheduling practices on controller performance. In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress directed our office to review the considerations of safety, controller performance, and cost effectiveness when controller schedules are developed. We found that, due to FAA’s scheduling practices and the nature of air traffic control work, controllers work erratic schedules, which can cause fatigue and negatively impact controller performance and safety. Although FAA has taken action by revising some of its controller scheduling policies, the Agency does not have metrics to determine whether its new policies will reduce controller fatigue. In addition, we found that FAA’s new policies requiring a second overnight controller at 30 facilities cost the Agency approximately $1.9 million per year. However, these costs could be offset by additional measures, such as reducing costs related to its overnight operations. Finally, we found that controllers are working schedules that do not always comply with FAA’s scheduling policies on the minimum amount of time required between shifts. FAA concurred with all four of our recommendations to further improve its controller scheduling practices. However, we are requesting additional information for one recommendation to clarify FAA’s policies regarding recuperative breaks on the midnight shift.