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America's air traffic controllers are dangerously overworked - are Ireland's?

The IAA says no.

The ATC tower at Dublin Airport
The ATC tower at Dublin Airport
Image: RollingNews.ie

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS in the US are working schedules that lead to chronic fatigue, but Ireland’s authorities say they don’t have a similar problem.

The Associated Press reports that the Federal Aviation Authority has kept secret for four years a study that paints an alarming picture of the work practices of those controlling the world’s busiest airspace.

The AP has got their hands on a draft of the report dated December 2011, despite four years of the FAA declining to release it under Freedom of Information requests to correspondent Joan Lowy.

The study found that nearly 2 in 10 controllers had committed significant errors in the previous year — such as bringing planes too close together — and over half attributed the errors to fatigue.

A third of controllers said they perceived fatigue to be a “high” or “extreme” safety risk.

Greater than 6 in 10 controllers indicated that in the previous year they had fallen asleep or experienced a lapse of attention while driving to or from midnight shifts, which typically begin about 10 pm and end around 6 am.

Overall, controllers whose activity was closely monitored by scientists averaged 5.8 hours of sleep per day over the course of a work week.

The most tiring schedules required controllers to work five straight midnight shifts, or to work six days a week several weeks in a row, often with at least one midnight shift per week. The human body’s circadian rhythms make sleeping during daylight hours before a midnight shift especially difficult.

The study is composed of a survey of 3,268 controllers about their work schedules and sleep habits, and a field study that monitored the sleep and the mental alertness of more than 200 controllers at 30 air traffic facilities.

The 270-page study makes 17 recommendations to the FAA, including that the agency discontinue mandatory six-day schedules “as soon as possible.”

However, the Irish Aviation Authority has told TheJournal.ie that no such concerns should had over Ireland’s workers.

The Irish Aviation Authority’s rostering arrangements for air traffic control officers are designed to ensure that the highest levels of safety are maintained at all times and that potential fatigue is mitigated.

“Air traffic control officer rosters are designed with regard to the requirements of the European Working Time Directive relating to rest periods.

“In addition to this, by way of local agreement, air traffic controllers are entitled to take a 20 minute fatigue break after every two hours of active duty.”

With reporting from Associated Press

Read: Here’s why every flight you take is obsessively monitored

Read: The mystery of flight MH370 is looking no closer to being solved

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