Numerous attempts to contact air traffic control went unanswered during the final approach to Washington D.C.’s Ronald Reagan National Airport early Wednesday. Two planes had to rely on directions from a regional facility located about 40 miles away, while the nearby control tower remained mysteriously silent.
Only one person was scheduled for duty at the time and that air traffic controller was asleep, sources tell the Associated Press.
Authorities insist the risk Wednesday was minimal because pilots are trained to announce an emergency landing over a special broadcast channel in the event that no air traffic controllers are present. The pilots would not be able to see if there was equipment on the runway that could be a landing hazard.
Air traffic controllers like many professionals in the airline industry face grueling and irregular work schedules that puts them at risk. Shift work disorder is especially prevalent. People with shift work disorder may fight their own circadian rhythms on a daily basis. The body may signal its time to sleep mid-shift and by the time shift workers get home circadian rhythms can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
The airline industry has had its share of problems possibly related to shift work disorder and other sleep problems. An NTSB investigation named impairment from fatigue and pilot inexperience as causes of the deadly crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in February 2009. One pilot napped in the airport while the other took a cross-country red-eye prior to the flight.
Recent investigations found similar working conditions to be common in the industry. Pilots are required a rest period of only eight hours between shifts. The rest period can occur at any time, day or night, without considering whether the pilot has the ability to fall asleep.
Low wages among pilots who work for smaller carriers also pose a safety problem. Pilots may try to save money by sleeping at hostel-like “crash-pads” instead of hotels. With up to a dozen airline employees sleeping in bunks in the same room, “crash-pads” aren’t a good place to sleep.
Last fall, the Federal Aviation Authority proposed scheduling regulations intended to address pilot fatigue. Those changes were met with strong opposition.
It appears that regulators have turned their attention to air traffic controllers. Reagan airport has agreed to increase its overnight staffing, after a direct request from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
It will remain to be seen if the sleeping air traffic controller will lead to major industry changes.