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Fatigue in US air travel system: It's not just air traffic controllers

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Indeed, analysts say, the difficulties for US aviation go beyond just a few tired controllers on the late shift and suggest that it’s time for the US aviation system to upgrade everything from training to communications equipment.

“They’ve got a couple layers of challenges” at the FAA alone, says William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, an independent group that draws support from the aviation industry.

One is that safety advances often hinge on navigating political hurdles. For example, aviation experts cite scientific research suggesting that allowing a nap by traffic controllers on the midnight shift would improve safety by easing fatigue. But that idea bumps up against the political instinct to call any sleep during a shift unacceptable.

Industry groups, rightly or wrongly, can play a heavy role through lobbying. Airline companies, citing what they say will be high costs, have opposed rules designed to ensure better rest for cockpit crews in the wake of a Buffalo, N.Y., crash (attributed partly to fatigue) that killed 50 people in 2009.

Another challenge lies within FAA ranks: trying to uphold high standards within a large and fast-changing workforce. In addition to a spate of air-traffic controllers found sleeping on the overnight shift, one in Ohio was censured for watching a film on a DVD player while he was on duty.

“There is a concern that there has been a fall-off in professionalism,” says Mr. Voss, who has worked as a controller. He characterizes traffic controllers as “bright people who can get out of hand if not carefully managed.”

A huge retirement wave is under way in control towers. One generation, which arrived in the early 1980s after President Reagan fired striking controllers, is departing. Voss says he expects the newcomers to do well. But it’s a big task to ensure that the incoming ranks are well trained.

Some aviation experts are encouraged by the actions of FAA administrator Randy Babbitt, as well as his background as a commercial pilot and union leader.

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