- The Washington Times - Friday, September 6, 2013

The Federal Aviation Administration faces ongoing challenges in staffing the nation’s air traffic control towers, the transportation department’s chief watchdog said, following a tumultuous few years of several high-profile examples of controllers falling asleep on the job and budget cuts that forced the agency to furlough thousands of workers.

After several air traffic controllers fell asleep on the job — some in the D.C. area — the FAA increased the amount of rest the controllers got between shifts and started requiring a second person to be on duty during overnight shifts.

The second person requirement is costing the agency an extra $1.9 million annually, but the Transportation Department Inspector General said that could be offset by cutting overnight workers at 72 facilities that don’t get enough traffic to justify the after-hours shifts.

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Plus, new software has been added that can alert managers if employees try to clock in during their mandatory rest period.

The IG estimated that only about 1 percent of all shifts include controllers who have not gotten a minimum of eight or nine hours of rest, but said it remains concerned about the issue.

“Ensuring a well-rested, alert controller workforce is essential to the safe and efficient operation of the [national airspace system],” the IG said.

Still, studies into fatigue are ongoing, investigators said, and the FAA might need to change its policies again as the effects of lack of sleep become better understood.

The nation’s aviation agency is also planning on hiring 11,700 new air traffic controllers by 2021 to replace those lost to budget cuts and retirement.

But investigators are concerned the hiring process is starting to take too long to train new workers.

“The average training time for new controllers rose by 41 percent, from 1.9 years in fiscal year 2009 to an average of 2.68 years in fiscal year 2012,” the IG said.

Two years ago, the FAA started 20 different projects to reduce the training time for air traffic controllers, but investigators said none of the initiatives have been finished. Part of the problem, the IG said, is a constant turnover at the FAA office that oversees training. In four years, there have been three major reorganizations of the department.