Audit Reports

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Air Traffic Control: Potential Fatigue Factors

Project ID: 

On June 29, 2009, we issued our report on fatigue factors that could impact air traffic controllers. We conducted this audit at three critical Chicago air traffic control facilities at the request of Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois. These 3 facilities are among the top 10 busiest in the United States, and Senator Durbin expressed concerns that staffing shortfalls, longer hours on the job, and a growing shortage of certified controllers may be causing controller fatigue. Accordingly, our audit objectives were to (1) identify and evaluate key factors that could cause controller fatigue at Chicago O’Hare International Airport Air Traffic Control Tower, Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility, and Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center and (2) identify what measures FAA has taken to mitigate potential controller fatigue at these locations. We identified a number of factors at these three facilities that could create potential fatigue conditions for controllers. These include minimal hours between shifts; scheduled overtime; and on–the–job training, which requires a high level of concentration and focus from the instructing controller. Facility personnel also identified other factors that could cause fatigue, including inadequate staffing levels, increased work load (i.e., traffic volume and complexity), and extended time on position or lack of position rotation. Although the National Transportation Safety Board has identified controller fatigue as a potential contributing factor in several operational errors, FAA does not consistently address human factors issues, such as fatigue and situational awareness, during its operational error investigation processes. However, FAA has begun actions at the national level to address NTSB recommendations regarding fatigue, such as amending FAA Order 7210.3 to increase the time available to controllers for rest between shifts. FAA has also developed a computer–based training module on the effects of fatigue on controller performance. At the time of our review, however, none of these actions had been implemented at the three facilities. While our review focused on only the three Chicago facilities, it is likely that the fatigue factors that we identified exist at other large air traffic control facilities throughout the Nation. Our recommendations focus on actions FAA needs to take at the national level to mitigate potential fatigue factors and enhance the level of safety of the National Airspace System. FAA generally concurred with our recommendations.