In the early hours of a March morning in 2011, two airplanes prepared to land at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, an airport located just two miles from the White House. These aircraft were required to obtain the necessary landing clearance from the tower controller. However, despite repeated attempts, the pilots involved were unable to reach the controller and eventually landed their airplanes without the requisite clearance. It was later revealed that the controller in question had fallen asleep while on duty. This event marked the first of several highly publicized incidents in which air traffic controllers either fell asleep on duty or became unresponsive, raising concerns about fatigue.

In the months following, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) implemented a number of measures aimed at addressing the issue, such as establishing a fatigue risk management system, and increasing staffing at night. The National Air Traffic Controller’s Association (NATCA), the labor union that represents controller interests, applauded these moves, stating that it had “for more than a decade expressed deep concerns about increasing controller fatigue” and “lobbied past administrations and congresses on the need to find a solution before it was too late.” However, NATCA’s statements belied their implicit support for the working conditions that led to those events; conditions that continue to threaten the safety of the flying public today.

Controllers generally work rotating schedules during which start and stop times vary. The schedule under recent scrutiny requires that five 8-hour shifts be worked during a period of 88 consecutive hours. In comparison, the average person will perform the same amount of work over 104 hours. This schedule receives union support because it gives controllers three days off before they begin their next shifts. However, it requires controllers who work from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on their fourth day, return for work a few hours later to begin their final shift from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

NATCA defends this scheduling practice, citing results from an unreleased non-peer reviewed 2010 study, which, according to spokesperson Doug Church, “shows that working with proper rest periods produce less fatigue.” It is unclear how such a study can be treated without skepticism given that according to a 2013 report from the Office of the Inspector General, the FAA does not have metrics capable of measuring the effects of its scheduling practices. More importantly, lengthy commutes to and from air traffic control facilities located around major metropolitan areas raise questions about how any type of rest can be obtained between closely spaced duty periods, let alone the “proper rest” needed to perform a job as critical as air traffic control.

Amid recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board that current scheduling practices be abolished altogether, NATCA has proposed fixes, such as personalizing fatigue mitigation strategies, providing managerial education that emphasizes non-punitive labor dealings, and providing more breaks during work shifts. While such efforts are commendable, it seems any and all solutions are eligible to receive union backing as long as those solutions do not involve controllers losing their three-day weekends.

Recent scientific advances suggest that fatigue arises from the complex interaction between how long a person has been working, how hard he or she has been working, what time of day work is being performed, and how much time has elapsed since the last opportunity for rest. Using this knowledge in a manner that benefits the flying public requires withdrawing longstanding support for scheduling practices that are by scientific standards unsafe. Few would disagree that such action is timely, necessary and would be above all, courageous.

Dr Ashley Nunes is a Principal Scientist at ISA Software, where his research efforts focus on operational performance and behavioral economics in aviation.