Just when you thought the sleepy skies full of fatigued airliner pilots were scary enough, in come enough warnings about sleepy air traffic controllers to keep you bolt upright all night next time you catch one of the red-eye horrors from Perth to Sydney or Melbourne. Following Friday’s story on fatigued airline pilots we received several anonymous tips regarding the work conditions in the country’s control towers:
Tip 1. I was interested to read your article about pilot fatigue in Australia. I think perhaps you might want to look at Air Traffic Control, and their policies regarding fatigue management. They are fast approaching a crisis with ageing controllers who are retiring. Many control sectors and towers are short-staffed and getting worse. Management has known about this for years and done little other than raise executive salaries and bonuses. They are currently trying to recruit controllers overseas to overcome this. The travelling public would be interested to know that this Government and others are trying to run Air Traffic Control at a profit, and the usual “increased productivity” — read longer hours for less money with less staff — is becoming the norm.
Tip 2. To follow up on your story on fatigued pilots. It is all true — and it has been heading this way for years for anyone who would care to listen — which unfortunately has been no one. Not the airline management or their safety department, not the regulatory authorities who wash their hands of the responsibility, not the various Ministers who seem either oblivious, or intentionally “uninformed” of the parlous state of the aviation workforce. And it is not just the pilots handling one aircraft at a time — it is the air traffic controllers handling 20+ planes at a time — often their busiest times at two or three in the morning when the wave of arrivals for the east coast cities crosses in from Asia and the Pacific.  The time when their bodies should be asleep and they are mentally at their lowest ebb. Which to some extent is what they are trained for, but understaffing and increasing traffic has been met with increased rostered hours and excessive overtime —  with pressure put on the more junior to accept the call ins on their days off. A fatigue management system has been the box-ticking paperwork to cover the guilty when the inevitable happens – not dissimilar to the fatigue management systems that are being employed by the airlines. Just like the airlines it is about reducing costs and making profits for their shareholders — who are the shareholders? Well, there is just one — the Commonwealth Government. Ironic? The same entity that will have to investigate any future fallout from its own policy.
Tip 3. Civil Air, the union that represents Australia’s air traffic controllers, has requested that CASA examine the management of fatigue more closely on several occasions; including that there be prescribed limits established in the duty and licensing regulations. The responses from CASA appear to amount to what can only be described as lip-service. There are no issues with fatigue as there hasn’t yet been an incident which the major contributor is fatigue; tick tick tick… The provider Airservices Australia has a fatigue management program (which CASA relies upon for safety). Primarily this is based on a product developed by the sleep research centre at Adelaide University; FAID by Interdyme dynamics.  Interdyme are apparently appalled at the way the company uses their product and are considering [revoking] the licence to it. The biggest issue is that our duty hours are described only in the principles of rostering section of our certified agreement. This an industrial agreement; which sadly can be ignored by a facilitative arrangement (available in the CA) or an AWA; so for workers that have these, there is no protection other than FAID; which is manipulated beyond all acceptable safety levels. FAID is a tool designed to manage the risk of fatigue; its algorithms are complex and do not take into account sheer stupidity.  Example: someone can work from 2100 at night to 0600 am have a half hour ‘break of shifts and return to duty at 0630 and work through to 1630; that’s right work for 19 hours out of 24 and be healthy and fit for duty; NOT! Real example; an individual was rostered 2pm-10pm then 3pm-11pm the following day, about 8pm on the first day it was apparent that no-one was available for the night shift; the individual signed a facilitative arrangement to ignore the principles of rostering; he extended until 5am and was removed from the 3pm shift the following day. So he actually worked from 2pm until 5am (with 1 hour “shift break” at 9pm until 10pm) controlling aircraft alone after 11pm until 5am. We have a magic FAID score of 80; which when exceeded must be subsequently managed; this varies depending on the score; the time of day and the staff available. It may mean a simple 30-minute reduction in shift length to being stood-down from a whole shift later in the cycle or worse a ‘sleep-wake model’ where controllers are coerced into saying they have had a certain amount of sleep between shifts. This reduces the FAID score dramatically. There also appears to be little science behind how 80 was chosen as the magic number; other than it wasn’t going to be restrictive to the existing rosters at the time of introduction.  I’m told that a FAID score of 80 (which is the maximum target of all rosters and is often exceeded with overtime in the mix) is the equivalent of 0.05 BAC; is that what the public expect of their ATCs too drunk (fatigued) to drive but fit enough to control? Real example; someone finished work at 11pm with a FAID score of 80 and was returned to duty at 7am until 2pm when the FAID score on the following night’s shift (10pm to 0500, now only an 8 hour break, they worked 3pm-11pm, 7am-2pm, 10pm-5am, 3 shifts in 2 days) exceeded 95 in FAID they were asked if they could confirm they had actually achieved 7 hours sleep in the first 8 hour break; of course they had (or the airspace would close) all negotiated at 0545 (6 hours 45 minutes after they left work; not after they got home for the alleged 7 hour sleep). There is much deliberate manipulation of the sleep-wake method.  All the while the management say they actually care for fatigue issues, well give it good lip-service. We are told that we are responsible for our own fatigue; dare not put fatigue as a reason for a sick day; you’ll find yourself getting counseled or worse, told to change the excuse to a cold of a headache, wink wink… In my opinion it is CASA’s right to regulate duty hours; nay obligation. Left to some manager who has a bonus riding on it and ‘pressure applied’ “we’ll have to close the airspace, or there are only two guys on they are going to suffer” etc. there will always be manipulation unless there are regulations about duty time.  The CAA of the UK seems to cope quite well with regulated hours; such as 12 hours minimum breaks between shifts. Here it is 10 rostered, 8 by agreement, or less by facilitative arrangement; and there have been multiple example of less than 8 hours; all supposedly protected by nothing more than a Certified agreement; which doesn’t apply in many circumstances. Staffing levels are somewhat critical (I estimate at least 10-15% short, we currently have less than 800 operational controllers); with the company going overseas to recruit licensed controllers to get us over the immediate crisis; 80+ extra needed yesterday. Needing to take advantage of the skills-working visa rules as there aren’t enough of us here right now; seeking to bypass the regulations about “permanent residency” or worse get some queue-jumpers on board (gov. sponsored of course). It is critical that someone looks at this more closely; keep up the good work, Crikey; fatigue is a serious issue; all you have to do is look at the sleeping controllers on night shifts who have many aircraft on frequency; those pesky pilot calls interrupting that valuable sleep.