The best solution to the problem of sleepy air traffic controllers is more sleeping on the job, scientists say.
But that would be a radical change for the Federal Aviation Administration. Current regulations forbid sleeping at work, even during breaks. Controllers who are caught can be suspended or fired.
Experts say that kind of thinking is outdated.
“There should be sanctioned on-shift napping. That’s the way to handle night shift work,” said Gregory Belenky, a sleep expert at Washington State University in Spokane. There are plenty of other scientists in the U.S. and around the world who agree with him. Sleep studies show that nighttime workers who are allowed “recuperative breaks” are more alert when they return to their tasks.
A working group on controller fatigue made up of officials from the FAA and the union that represents air traffic controllers recently embraced that position as well.
The issue has taken on a new urgency in the wake of four recent episodes in which the FAA says controllers fell asleep while on duty. The most recent case occurred this week when the pilot of a plane transporting a critically ill passenger was unable to raise the sole controller working at 2 a.m. in the tower of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada.
The FAA said the controller was out of communication for 16 minutes. Controllers at a regional radar facility in California assisted the plane, which landed safely.
The episodes have sent administration officials scrambling to assure the public and angry members of Congress that air travel is indeed safe. Even President Barack Obama weighed in, telling ABC News in an interview, “We’ve got it under control.”
“What we also have to look at is air traffic control systems,” Obama acknowledged. “Do we have enough backup, do we have enough people, are they getting enough rest time?”
In fact, the FAA and the controllers union — with assistance from NASA and the Mitre Corp., among others — has come up with 12 recommendations for tackling sleep-inducing fatigue among controllers. Among those recommendations is that the FAA change its policies to give controllers on midnight shifts as much as two hours to sleep plus a half-hour to wake up.
That would mark a profound change from current regulations that can make sleeping controllers subject to suspension or dismissal.