FAA report shows air traffic controllers are making mistakes because of fatigue

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In a nationwide study conducted by NASA, The Federal Aviation Administration blamed pilot error and Air Traffic Controllers who were working on just two hours of sleep for the 2006 plane crash in Lexington, Ky., that killed 49 people.

The FAA commissioned NASA to conducted a nationwide study of air traffic controllers after the accident happened. The administration then sat on the results of that study for more than three years. The report was finally released Monday, just hours after a scathing report was published by the Associated Press. The FAA fired back saying it always intended on releasing it.

"That's terribly shocking.  A report like this, which impacts aviation safety, which is critical, should have been released at the time that the report was done," said Attorney Dough Latto who worked on the Lexington crash. He said he wasn't surprised by NASA's findings.

According to the report:

  • 2 out of 10 air traffic controllers admitted to making mistakes, like letting planes get too close, because of fatigue.
  • Most reported getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night
  • 6 out of 10 controllers reported dozing off at work.

In another 2011 incident, two planes landed in Washington D.C. without guidance because the lone controller on duty fell asleep.

"It's primary mandate is to promote safe skies.  To make sure that air travel is safe," Latto said of the FAA.  "And undoubtedly when air traffic controllers are not getting enough rest, are not getting enough sleep, the margin of safety decreases."

However, the administration did implement several of the 17 suggestions the report outlined. Controllers are now required to have at least nine hours in between shifts and take breaks during working hours. They can no longer work back to back midnight shifts and on there must be at least two controllers in the tower at all times.

But Latto says it's not enough.

"There's no way that the controller is going to get 8 hours of restful sleep when he or she only has 9 hours off.  The lack of sleep and the lack of rest is a critical problem with respect to aviation.  Until that gets resolved we unfortunately probably will see another accident, lives lost as a result of controller fatigue.​"