Recent revelations about napping nighttime air traffic controllers have sparked concern among American travelers and caused regulators to snap into action, but industry insiders say that the nodding off is not a matter of lazy workers loafing on the job.
current and retired controllers told the Associated Press, sleeping in the tower is not only common, but almost inevitable, as controllers pulling late-night shifts in a quiet setting struggle to stave off fatigue. In situations in which two are on the job at the same time, they said, controllers often cover for each other so that they both can get some sleep.
That planned nap system, insiders say, is common knowledge — even though sleeping on the job is outlawed by the FAA, punishable by suspension or termination.
“We’ve been in denial about this problem forever so you have widespread abuse of a system,” said Bill Voss, a former controller and president of the Flight Safety Foundation. “We could have a far better system if we just admitted what is going on and put some structure around it.”
Less common than the planned catnaps are controllers nodding off while on duty. Four such cases have come to light recently.
Difficult work schedules are said to be a big part of the problem. The controller in Washington, D.C., who was sleeping in March while two planes landed at Reagan National Airport was working on a streak of four straight midnight shifts.
Controllers often work one week of graveyard shifts, followed by a week of morning shifts, and another week of so-called “swing” shifts. In another common scheduling pattern, known as the “rattler” because of its effects on sleep patterns, controllers will compress five shifts into four days, to have longer periods off from the job at the end of the work week. But that means less time to recharge between shifts.
Sleep scientists say that this variety worsens the problem by interrupting the body’s attempts to settle on a natural sleep cycle. They also say that a controlled nap cycle can help people reduce fatigue and maintain alertness while working during the nighttime hours.
As Bloomberg reports, the National Transportation Safety Board — which four years ago asked the FAA and the controllers union to work on the fatigue issue — found that 61 percent of controllers had schedules that opposed normal sleep-wake patterns.
The working group later offered recommendations for tackling fatigue that included a never-adopted policy change to allow controllers on midnight shifts to get sleep breaks. Such countries as France, Germany, Canada and Australia already permit napping by controllers during work shift breaks.
The four recent cases of unsanctioned napping, however, have drawn a forceful response from the Federal Aviation Administration. Randy Babbitt, head of the FAA, said Thursday that the agency would launch a thorough review of the air traffic control system, and he accepted the resignation of its chief official, Hank Krakowski. In addition, officials announced that a second controller would be added immediately for night shifts at 27 facilities around the country that had been one-person operations after dark.
“Over the last few weeks we have seen examples of unprofessional conduct on the part of a few individuals that have rightly caused the traveling public to question our ability to ensure their safety,” Babbitt said in a statement. “This conduct must stop immediately.”