Two years and two months after yawning, undertrained pilots flew Continental Connection Flight 3407 into a house in Clarence Center, killing 50 people, a top federal safety official said Monday that fatigue is a transportation hazard that goes way beyond sleepy pilots and napping air traffic controllers.
What's worse, it's a hazard that has defied correction despite the National Transportation Safety Board's decades of pressure on government leaders to draw up transportation industry rules that take into account how and when people get tired.
For example, while napping air traffic controllers have been grabbing headlines lately, the safety board's first recommendation regarding fatigue in marine transportation dates from 1969.
And the board first made recommendations regarding the problem of controller fatigue 30 years ago, said Mark R. Rosekind, a fatigue expert who was appointed to the board after it concluded its work on the Clarence Center crash.
The commission has also made multiple recommendations regarding fatigue in truck drivers, train operators and in virtually every other mode of transportation.
"What is it going to take to get these recommendations enacted?" he asked.
Regarding pilot fatigue, the Families of Continental Flight 3407 and Congress are prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to act. Thanks to pressure from the families, Congress last year enacted a law requiring that the FAA bolster its rules on pilot fatigue by this August.
"By law, the FAA has a year to address this issue," Rosekind said. "NTSB aside, I think you have a direct link between the visibility and pressure from those families to get something done related to a law that was enacted and the FAA's requirement to respond to that law, which included [requiring] fatigue issues to be addressed."
The Republican-controlled House recently passed legislation that would make it tougher to finalize new rules, though, and while that provision stands little chance of making it through the Senate, Rosekind indicated that there are other reasons to wonder if the FAA will go far enough in battling pilot fatigue.
For example, while the proposed rules would give more rest to pilots at the commercial airlines, the rules do not cover charter flights.
The safety board has also criticized other details of the proposed rules, which aim to ensure that pilots have nine hours of rest prior to duty, up from the current eight hours, and that they get at least 30 consecutive hours off every week.
While the FAA continues to work on the pilot fatigue proposal, "our concern is it's already too long," Rosekind said. "It's great to see [the proposal]. We want to see what comes out."
The safety board's proposals to prevent fatigue among air traffic controllers have not gone nearly so far with the FAA.
Rosekind, who directed a sleep research center at Stanford University before joining the safety board last year, said the scheduling of nap time could be part of the solution to controller fatigue.
"From a scientific side I would say controlled napping, the effective use of caffeine and every science-based strategy that works should be included and available," he said. "Every one of them, at minimum, should be on the table for consideration.
But in the wake of at least five recent cases of controllers falling asleep while on duty, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt last week told the Associated Press: "We don't pay people to sleep at work at the FAA. I don't know anybody that pays anybody to sleep unless you're buying people to have sleep studies."
Rosekind stressed, too, that the sleepiness that those controllers exhibited is, by no means, limited to the aviation industry.
He said, "We have these episodes pretty much in every mode of transportation."