Pushing Ten 

Local air traffic controllers are losing sleep over a proposed scheduling change.

About eight people are crammed into the air traffic control tower at Memphis International Airport. Each sits in front of computer screens, radars, or panels of buttons.

These air traffic controllers come in during the afternoon and work until shortly after nightfall. The bulk of their work -- guiding airplanes in and out of the airport -- is done during daylight hours. But if Memphis Tower manager Bill Wertz has his way, they'll soon be performing their duties in the dark.

Wertz has proposed a new schedule that would rotate all controllers through the midnight shift, which extends from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Currently, 11 to 13 senior controllers have volunteered for that shift for the past several years.

While many airports don't do much late-night business, controllers in Memphis are responsible for roughly 300 FedEx flights between 10:30 p.m. and 5 a.m., making the Memphis Tower the 20th-busiest overall in the nation.

"Sleeping during the day and working at night is not natural, but our current voluntary midnight crew have set their schedule to that," says Peter Sukfa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association-Memphis Chapter (NATCA). "I'm worried about the person working most of their week when they're able to go to sleep when it's dark and now they'll be waking up when it's dark. It'll be more difficult for them to perform the task at hand."

At night, Sufka says the airport looks much different, and since one runway crosses east-west and the others run north-south, it's important for controllers to be alert.

"You're basically going on taxiway lights, runway lights, and airplane lights," says Sufka.

The proposed changes were announced just days after an August 27th crash in Lexington, Kentucky. A Comair jet leaving the Blue Grass Airport crashed a few moments after take-off, killing 49 people. Though the investigation is ongoing, there is media speculation that an air traffic controller operating on two hours of sleep may have been part of the problem.

Wertz declined to comment but referred the Flyer to a spokesperson from the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) in Atlanta.

"The manager in Memphis put down a proposal to rotate the schedule to foster greater teamwork and provide more consistent performance," says FAA spokesperson Kathleen Bergen.

Bergen says similar schedules are already in place at most airports but admits Memphis has a larger-than-average midnight shift.

Such scheduling changes would not have been possible under the controllers' old contract. But a new contract, which took effect September 3rd, allows managers more freedom in changing the schedule. The new contract was drawn up after negotiations between NATCA and the FAA failed in April.

Other changes in the contract also concern NATCA officials. Among them are stricter rules for sick leave, vacation time, and breaks.

Sufka says NATCA is filing an official complaint over the new work rules with the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

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