Flying the Friendly ... Zzzzzz

By O'Rourke, Morgan | Risk Management, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Flying the Friendly ... Zzzzzz


O'Rourke, Morgan, Risk Management


I don't sleep much. It's not insomnia or anything like that--it's just that I don't like sleeping. More than six hours a night is rare and regardless of how late I went to bed, if I sleep past 7 a.m., I feel like I'm wasting the day. Even on weekends. I know it's probably not ideal, at least according to the experts, but it has worked for me for as long as I can remember.

Lately, however, it seems that my sleep habits (or lack thereof) would make me the perfect candidate for a new career in air traffic control. In the past few months, there have been multiple reports of air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job, so I'm thinking that someone who doesn't need a lot of sleep would be an asset to aviation.

In March, two different pilots had to land their planes without assistance from the tower at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington because the air traffic controller on duty had fallen asleep during his midnight shift. In the following weeks, similar reports surfaced around the country, including one from the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in which an air ambulance containing a sick passenger was forced to land on its own and another from Knoxville, Tennessee in which the controller was sleeping on a makeshift bed fashioned out of couch cushions and a blanket from the employee break room.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The sleeping controllers were either fired or suspended in most cases, and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood pledged to correct the problem, even going so far as to say in an appearance on ABC's World News, that, "We will not sleep until we can guarantee that there's good safety in the control towers when these planes are coming in and out of airports."

Bad pun aside, the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did put measures in place to prevent the problem from happening again, including adding a second air traffic controller to night shifts at the 27 control towers around the country that had only one person working during that time period. They also implemented new scheduling rules that mandate that controllers have at least nine hours off between shifts (instead of eight) and prevent them from working a midnight shift after a day off (a common method some controllers used to get what amounted to a three-day weekend).

One measure that has so far been dismissed by airline officials is napping, despite recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (the union that represents air traffic controllers) and long-standing evidence that on-shift naps are helpful for combating fatigue and improving performance. …

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