Air Traffic Controllers Asleep In The Tower

By Sahil Batra

After the fifth air traffic controller in a month was reported to be asleep on duty, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has set out to issue new scheduling guidelines aimed at reducing fatigue on the job for air traffic controllers. Randy Babbitt, head of the FAA, will kick off a nationwide tour of briefings in Atlanta that will unveil the new rules for overnight staffing. The latest report was of a traffic controller who fell asleep during a midnight shift at a regional radar facility in Miami that monitors high-altitude flights. Luckily, there were other controllers present on duty, and no flight calls were missed.

Flight controllers are required to come to work rested and ready to work and are expected to take personal responsibility for safety in the control towers. According to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, “safety is our top priority and we will continue to make whatever changes are necessary,” and there is a zero tolerance for sleeping on the job.

Controllers will now have a minimum of nine hours off between shifts as opposed to as few as eight previously. Controllers also won’t be allowed to swap shifts without at least nine hours off between shifts and can’t switch to an unscheduled midnight shift following a day off. Finally, FAA managers will schedule their own shifts in a way to ensure greater coverage in the early morning and late-night hours.

Guidelines such as these won’t be able to completely eliminate snoozing on the job. More drastic changes need to be made that will address the issue at its roots and not just at the surface level. The real issue here is one that, quite frankly, should have been addressed decades ago. Why is something as common as human fatigue and sleep deprivation still occurring in workplaces that are responsible for human lives? Why have preventive measures not been placed into effect that will reduce, if not completely eliminate, this problem? Until these questions can be answered, incidences of this manner will continue to occur.

In fact, the current scheduling system is so rudimentary and lacking in development that in many centers around the U.S. there is only one air traffic controller working the night shift. If that isn’t asking for disaster, then I don’t know what is. You can only will yourself to stay awake for so long. Eventually, the brain decides it has had enough, and you’ll be off dreaming.

The way overnight work is scheduled, along with inflexibility about napping on the job, has only complicated the problem, which is what these guidelines seek to address.

“The guideposts here for further action are the recommendations of the FAA-NATCA joint workforce on fatigue, which were the result of a year and a half of efforts,” union president Paul Rinaldi said on Saturday. “They provide science-based, healthy solutions to reducing controller fatigue.”

Currently, 25 percent of the nation’s air traffic controllers work a “2-2-1” schedule, working afternoon to night the first two days, followed by a mandatory minimum of eight hours for rest before starting two morning-to-afternoon shifts, another eight or more hours for sleep and lastly, a final shift starting between 10 p.m. to midnight. This mandatory eight-hour requirement is not physically regulated by a governing body and is completely dependent on trust. For all we know, the workers could be working a second job when they should be resting.

A more simple yet sophisticated system needs to be in place — one that addresses the physical fitness of workers (something largely ignored in this field of work), ensures that workers have enough endurance and energy to last through the night and lastly, lets workers follow a straightforward weekly schedule. Job requirements should be strict, in that workers should be required to be at a certain fitness level and have the ability to take precautionary measures to prevent themselves from falling asleep by following emergency protocols that are in place to avoid just this.

After all, we’re only human and at some point, the brain seizes control and we involuntarily make the transition from wakefulness to sleep — even at very inappropriate circumstances. It is remarkable that in 2011, an incident of this type, carrying such magnitude, can still occur without any significant bypass in place.

Sahil Batra is a fourth-year biology major. He can be reached at