FAA Responds To Air Traffic Controllers Sleeping On The Job

April 15, 2011

Air traffic control towerWe've all felt like we could use a quick nap during the work day from time to time. Some of us may have even figured out ways to sneak in a catnap during the day. Some companies even encourage it. However, there are some jobs where doing such a thing could have devastating consequences.

According to The Christian Science Monitor, one of those professions is air traffic control. After a string of incidents where controllers were caught sleeping on the job, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) required one additional traffic controller during the overnight shift at 27 U.S. airports.

"Air traffic controllers are responsible for making sure aircraft safely reach their destinations," said Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbit in a statement on Wednesday. "We absolutely cannot and will not tolerate sleeping on the job."

USA Today reported that more than 20 percent of traffic controllers work at least one midnight shift in a two-week pay period, which puts them at risk of falling asleep or making errors. Indeed, since February, six controllers have been caught or suspended for sleeping on the job; the most recent incident being Wednesday when a medical plane landed after failing to make contact with the controller on duty.

As alarming as it is to the general public, fatigue has been a long-time issue among traffic controllers, noted CNN. Not only is the job high stress as controllers juggle multiple planes landing, taxiing and taking off throughout the day, but schedules are tough. Bob Richards, a retired air traffic controller who worked at O'Hare International Airport for 22 years described a typical workweek as two 3 to 11pm shifts, immediately followed by two 7am to 3pm shifts and ending with one overnight shift, usually 11pm to 7am.

Dr. Mark Rosekind, a clinical psychologist who has studied sleep for NASA, told The Christian Science Monitor, "The myth is that the more you work, the more your body adjusts to the night work. Physiologically, your internal clock does not adjust."

Furthermore, noted CNN, getting off work at such odd hours doesn't always permit sleep.

"Many times I just couldn't go to sleep," said Ron Connolly, former air traffic controller who retired two years ago. "Here it is, I've gotten off at 2 o'clock. It's broad daylight. The family is active; they're asking me things that need to get done." Connolly said he sometimes had to function on four hours or less of sleep.

Research has shown that traffic controllers get an average of 2.3 hours of sleep before working an overnight shift. However, unlike pilots, they don't have the option of declining a shift without punishment and many argue that this is a big part of the problem.

"That's actually illegal, and they have to be punished. So in one way, you are forcing people to work even if they can't," said Bill Voss, president and CEO of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation.

Compiled by Heidi M. Agustin


"Records: Many air controllers are at risk of sleep, errors," travel.usatoday.com, April 14, 2011, Alan Levin

"Sleeping air-traffic controllers show that fatigue issue still plagues FAA," csmonitor.com, April 14, 2011, Aaron Couch

"What it's like to be an air traffic controller," CNN.com, April 15, 2011, A. Pawlowski

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