EXCLUSIVE: ICAO calls time on controller fatigue

New measures to prevent air traffic controllers from falling asleep on the job are to be developed by UN aviation agency ICAO.
The data-driven methodology that already allows airlines to tailor fatigue-related risks to their specific type of operations will within a few years be applied to controllers after ICAO safety chiefs gave the go ahead to the plan when they met in December at their Montreal headquarters.
The new Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) and supporting guidance material on the implementation and oversight of Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS) for airline operations clearly identified the necessary components of an effective FRMS, and ICAO said it was well aware that FRMS principles could be applicable to all safety-critical personnel, not just flight and cabin crew.
“Responding to this and to industry requests, we are now turning our attention to developing provisions to support effective fatigue risk management approaches for air traffic controllers, a group of professionals for whom no such provisions currently exist,” Dr Michelle Millar, a human performance technical specialist at ICAO, told Air Traffic Management.
ICAO will soon be coordinating a meeting with ATC-focused members of its FRMS Task Force next year to commence work on a proposal for some draft SARPs.
“This meeting will involve a wide geographical representation of all stakeholders, including regulators, service providers and air traffic controllers, and the aim will be to have a preliminary proposal for consideration by our Air Navigation Commission in early 2014. ICAO Council adoption would then be hoped for by end 2015,” said Dr Millar.
Detailed guidance material for ANSPs and amendments to the FRMS Manual for Regulators are also planned to accompany the new ATC SARPs. The ANSP standards will complement existing materials already available to airline operators.
Pilot fatigue has increasingly been cited as a contributing factor in aircraft accidents and last year’s repeated incidents of US controllers falling asleep prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to change scheduling practices to minimise controller fatigue after a National Transportation Safety Board report into one incident demonstrated how fatigue had resulted partly from those practices
The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Associations and Quintiq – a business which develops advanced planning and scheduling software – earlier this year co-hosted a fatigue risk management webinar targeted at air navigation service providers particularly those managers overseeing controller scheduling.
A survey conducted during the webinar found that while the majority of providers use pre-defined work/rest cycles to create rosters, dynamic cycles instead are preferred by controllers. Incorporating fatigue reduction goals however are often perceived to reduce operational efficiency, leaving controllers to manage tasks and plan breaks themselves.
“Between 2009 and 2011, the world woke up to an issue that the aviation industry has long been aware of: air traffic control officer fatigue,” said Alexis Braithwaite, IFATCA president and chief executive. “Mainstream media reported several cases of controllers falling asleep on the job, with CNN stating that there were at least nine fatigue-related incidents between February and April of 2011.
“Air navigation service providers are under greater pressure than ever to understand and implement the latest FRM policies and recommendations. Doing so is key to mitigating the risks of controller fatigue.”

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