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.

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.

Meanwhile, Richard Dudley, general manager of corporate affairs, Airservices Australia, writes:

Clarification is required for the Crikey post “Never mind exhausted pilots, what about the air traffic controllers?” (Tuesday, item 15) regarding the management of air-traffic-controller fatigue and staffing.

We wholeheartedly agree with the raising of fatigue in professions such as pilots and air traffic control as a critically important issue — our safety culture actively promotes raising such issues. However, we reject many of the accusations contained in the article and categorically refute the implication that Airservices places profit before the safety of the travelling public.

Safety is Airservices’ primary consideration in everything that we do in our business and underpins our service delivery, investment choices and maintenance of the civilian air navigation system.

Regarding controller fatigue, Airservices has developed in partnership with the world recognised Adelaide University Centre for Sleep Research, a fatigue risk management system (FRMS).

This system incorporates fatigue-awareness programs for both controllers and their families and air-traffic-control management.

Within the FRMS, assessments are made regarding which controllers can be called out for duty. This assessment is based on their qualifications, experience and fatigue levels which are premised on their previous shift-cycle. These inputs are assessed using a ’prior sleep wake model’ which profiles all controllers’ fatigue levels and fitness for duty.

Airservices recognises fatigue as a legitimate reason for absence from work and for a controller to reject overtime requests. While there are no regulatory requirements which relate to controller-fatigue or rostering, Airservices developed its FRMS on the basis of assessment of its business risk and the findings of a parliamentary inquiry into fatigue risk in the transport industry in 2000.

Airservices disputes allegations in Crikey that the fatigue software program Fatigue Audit Interdyne Dynamics (FAID) is manipulated beyond “all acceptable safety levels”. We have a robust safety system that is reliant on air traffic controllers providing accurate information regarding rests between their shifts. The system is continually evaluated and improved.

In regard to the issue of future air-traffic-controller requirements, Airservices has listened to its staff and fully recognises issues with the age profile of its controllers. This is being addressed through detailed workforce planning, international recruitment, and an increase in new recruit (ab initio) training courses to deliver additional and sustained resources.

Airservices Australia retains an ongoing commitment to manage the risks posed by fatigue and demands under a just culture, all of its employees to continually raise any issue which may impact on the safety of the organisations operations and the safety of the travelling public.

Peter Fray

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