Air traffic controllers said yesterday they will be forced to work even when they're tired after the Federal Aviation Administration imposes a new contract this weekend.
Controller fatigue may be an issue in the investigation of the Comair Flight 5191 crash that killed 49.
The solo controller in the tower at Lexington Blue Grass Airport had his back turned on the airfield when the pilots took off on the wrong runway early Sunday morning.
He told investigators he'd had only two hours of sleep and worked 15 hours in the previous 24.
Sleep researchers say such sleep deprivation typically causes attention lapses and slowed reaction times.
The controllers' new contract with the FAA follows nine months of bitter negotiations that broke down in April. Controllers sought binding arbitration, but the FAA said the law gives it the right to impose its last, best offer.
A section of the contract says, "Sick leave cannot be granted for rest or minor inconveniences," according to a briefing guide for the FAA's collective bargaining agreement with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
"We would never have a controller controlling traffic who was too tired to work," said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.
Brown said a controller can request several different types of leave if too tired to direct aircraft. Alternatively, a manager may assign the controller to administrative duties that don't involve controlling air traffic.
"Congress and the inspector general and other oversight agencies have told us that they'd like to see us manage our sick leave better," Brown said. "We have one of the highest sick leave rates in the federal government."
Paul Rinaldi, NATCA's executive vice president, said the new rules will result in tired controllers working when they shouldn't.
Yesterday, the FAA's air traffic manager at Washington Center, which directs high-altitude traffic in the District of Columbia region, said he would discipline any controllers who called in sick because they were fatigued, Rinaldi said.
Rinaldi said controllers can't work if they're on most types of medication, including over-the-counter drugs. "If I'm taking Sudafed, I cannot work traffic," Rinaldi said.
Air traffic controllers say fatigue is a symptom of a nationwide staffing shortage.
Short staffing has forced some controllers to handle double-duty -- simultaneously directing airplanes on the ground and monitoring air traffic by radar, much like the controller in Kentucky.
Short staffing can also mean little time to rest between shifts, which was also the case in Lexington.
Several Democratic lawmakers have called for investigations into the FAA's staffing practices.