Records: many air traffic controllers risk falling asleep - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Records: many air traffic controllers risk falling asleep

USATODAY.COM - More than 20% of the nation's air-traffic controllers work at least one midnight shift in 14 days, which puts them at risk of falling asleep or making critical safety errors, the government's own records show.

Internal records from the Federal Aviation Administration — the agency that oversees flight safety and the air-traffic system — show that 3,404 of the nation's 15,475 controllers typically work the shift in a two-week pay period.

FAA records and reports, some of which date back years, also make clear the government has long been aware of the potential danger of fatigue among controllers working at night.

One report, prepared just last month for the FAA and its controllers' union, paints the danger in stark terms: It warns that working several midnight shifts in a row is so tough on people that they behave as if they're too drunk to legally drive.

Fatigue has become a major issue for the nation's 24-hour, air-traffic system. Six controllers since February have been caught or been suspected of sleeping on the job at night or early morning.

The most recent incident was Wednesday in Reno, where a medical plane landed shortly after 2 a.m. after failing to rouse anyone in the airport's tower. On Thursday, the FAA announced the resignation of its air-traffic chief, Hank Krakowski.

A review of FAA reports and studies show that the potential for fatigue goes beyond a handful of controllers sleeping on the job. Tired controllers have made mistakes that nearly led to catastrophic collisions on runways, incident reports show.

The report last month for the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association reiterated the point. "Acute fatigue occurs on a daily basis due to reduced sleep opportunity," it says.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents and is a watchdog on air safety, recommended in 2007 that the FAA and the union alter schedules because fatigue had been linked to numerous incidents and accidents.

"Fatigue is a longstanding problem in the industry," NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman says. "It shouldn't take controllers falling asleep on the job for the FAA to wake up to the fact that these schedules aren't in the best interest of safety."

Although no changes have been made, the FAA and the union said Thursday they're working on solutions.