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Are Air Traffic Controllers to Blame for On-The-Job Naps?

June 26, 2012

I have recently been doing investigations into the jobs of the folks responsible for keeping everyone safe and everything in order in fields where radios are used.  Some of the things I have been pondering are police and fire dispatchers, Coast Guard marine operators, and air traffic controllers, as well as the necessary skill of the folks on the other end of the conversation (the plane pilots, the police units in the field, the captains of the vessels at sea, etc.)

My focus today is on air traffic controllers.

As you probably know, air traffic controllers have been plagued recently with a bad reputation.  Take the following examples:

In Reno Nevada in April 2011, an air traffic controller was caught sleeping on the job while a plane carrying a person who was critically ill was trying to land.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, this was his third offense.  Also, he didn’t just doze: he was asleep for approximately 16 minutes.  The plane with the ill patient eventually landed without clearance from the tower.

In a similar incident, at an airport in Knoxville, TN early in 2011, an air traffic controller was caught “willfully” sleeping on the job.  However, this incident was not for a few minutes: the controller dozed off for five hours.

The man who fell asleep worked in the radar control room at Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport.  His counterpart controller, who works in the actual control tower, had to cover both jobs and safely landed 7 planes during the other controller’s ciesta.

In a final example, also in early 2012, three planes had to land at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, without clearance because the air traffic controller could not be reached in the tower.  One pilot even went as far as to call the tower on the phone, without response.

If you are not familiar with the job, it is very stressful.  The job involves giving planes clearance to land and take off, and coordinating all the flight paths of the planes in their controlled airspace.  This is a huge responsibility.  The career of being an ATC has been said to be one of the most stressful careers in the world.

Nevertheless, there must be something we can do about the high volume of controllers sleeping on the job.

Imagine yourself, if you will, in an airport tower control.  It is the dead of midnight.  Even so, numerous planes are still coming into and out of the air space.  Would that be a time you would be able to fall asleep? My brain would be on overload, and I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep if I wanted to.

However, I understand I have never personally been on the job.  So maybe it’s time to look at other factors.

Clearly, ATC’s cannot be tolerated to sleep on the job.  That would be comparable, in my view, to a police officer falling asleep at the wheel of his car while pursuing a suspect, or the Incident Commander at a large fire dozing off and missing a trapped fireman’s cries for help from within the building.  All scenarios would be deadly and would likely result in loss of life.

These controllers need to know ahead of time what they are getting into when they chose this profession.  According to an online article, many controllers cite the high salary they receive as compensation for the stress of the job, and work it primarily for that reason.  However, they need to have some degree of understanding that their nodding off for even a second could result in loss of others’ lives, and also (probably) an end to their inflow of high salary (if the FAA is aware of the situation.) If they don’t think they can handle the job, then don’t do it.

I am not trying to bash all ATC’s.  I understand that it is a high-stress job and that it is very difficult.  I applaud all the controllers worldwide that come into work on a regular basis and keep so many planes and people safe in the air.  Our airspace would be far more dangerous without them.

However, they are also necessary.  The few controllers who mess up ruin the reputation of controllers everywhere.

It’s time to become proactive.  I believe that multiple controllers should be staffed at the towers during the overnight shift.  (In all of the above cases, the controller was alone in the tower when he fell asleep.) Maybe controllers can work in shorter, alternating shifts, so before one gets tired, he can take a quick nap while another, rested controller takes his place.  It could be as simple as ensuring an 8-hour sleep before heading off to work.

What do you think? Should the controllers be at fault for the instances of rest on the job? Or should these mishaps be forgiven because the job is so high-stress? I want to hear your opinions!

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