night towerAs you probably know, Aviation is a 24/7/365 operation - it never stops.

As a high profile element of Australian transportation it had the spotlight firmly upon it during the House of Representatives Transport Committee Report, “Beyond the Midnight Oil”, which investigated fatigue in the transport industry.

Air Traffic Controllers, like pilots, were to be required to work under a Fatigue Risk "Management" System (FRMS) as a result - unlike pilots however, Air Traffic Controllers are not protected by any legislation in regulation of their working hours, unlike many other developed nations with busy air transport systems such as the United Kingdom.

Instead, and somewhat controversially, Air Traffic Controllers hours are regulated by the "Fatigue Audit InterDyne - FAID"  System (A commercial product). Controversially, because it allows controllers to work with a fatigue level equivalent to the highest Blood Alcohol limit for legally driving a vehicle - and in some circumstances beyond that level. This should be a 'worst case' scenario - but in fact with present staffing levels in Australia it is more often the norm. There are also widespread claims that FAID is being manipulated beyond it's design criteria to declare those on rest days (rostered days off) 'fit for duty' when they should otherwise be sleeping or resting.

The issue became quite public recently with an article in online journal Crikey soliciting comments from Air Traffic Controllers that they were "asleep on the job". 

An Airservices Australia PR Consultant was quick to respond the following day and refute their claims.

The question remains: How Tired is the Air Traffic Controller looking after the many aircraft at a time that will include your flight or that of your family and friends?

Related Reading: Read The ATM Fatigue Management Report (.pdf, 818kb) 

Some of the submissions from the article mentioned above and reproduced below make for sobering reading:

An Experienced Controller Writes:

I have been following your story about pilot fatigue with interest -- including the comments regarding air traffic controllers.

In my 15 years as an air traffic controller I have never before seen the situation where people come to work with their eyes hanging out to this degree -- it's ironic that the same people I used to joke with years ago about the night freight pilots falling asleep -- they did, and still do -- are now the ones falling asleep behind me.

Just last week, I was having a busy session about 3am, and I had a few aircraft to 'hand-off' to the next sector.  Now it just so happens, the next sector is the guy sitting about 20 feet behind me. On every occasion (about 5-10 minutes apart) the controller was sound asleep -- to the point where I had to get up, go over and physically wake him up so that I could transfer the aircraft over to him!

I have nothing against the guy -- he has more experience than me, but he has already worked the morning shift, and was now into his 14th hour of duty in less than 24 hours, and was already on his ninth shift in the same number of days. Our 'Fatigue Management System' says he was fit to be at work. He and I know better.

Another Controller Writes:

The emphasis is on management -- it is managing the liability, not the fatigue. I have also noticed bleary and cranky pilots a lot over the last few years. What is being allowed to happen to duty times and hours for pilots and controllers is absolutely criminal,  but is totally within the law. Unfortunately I think your readers -- like us -- all know how this is going to end.

A British air traffic controller, 15 years' experience, writes: Re. "Air traffic controller tells: we're asleep on the job" (Thursday, item 4). I read with interest the articles concerning fatigued air traffic controllers. Here in the UK, in the early '90s, a committee was set up to look into fatigue and the regulation of ATCOs' hours (Committee for the Regulation of ATCOs' Operating Hours -- CRATCOH). Their findings became law under the Air Navigation Order as the Schedule for the Regulation of ATCOs' Operating Hours (SRATCOH) and can be found  here, Part D, Section 2. One of the reasons behind these regulations was to remove the possibility of management applying undue pressure on an individual to work when fatigued, and another was because the controller personally is not always the first to recognise that they are fatigued. It is much better to put down this sort of legislation before an incident, rather than have to apply it in response to a tragedy.