For the second time in two months, an air traffic controller was caught sleeping on the job. A Federal Aviation Administration report says the unnamed controller didn’t accidently doze off - he intentionally slept for five hours.The incident happened at McGee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tenn. on February 19 – more than a month before a supervisor working alone at Washington’s Reagan National Airport unintentionally fell asleep for nearly a half-hour.
Unlike the incident a month ago, the Knoxville controller is being fired by the government for “unprofessional and inappropriate behavior.”It’s easy to blame an irresponsible employee, but as the Sleep Education Blog reported recently, the problem runs much deeper.
Air traffic controllers face notoriously difficult sleep schedules. One common schedule for air traffic controllers known as the “rattler” involves returning to work a midnight shift only hours after working a daytime shift. The nickname “rattler” comes from the damage the shift does to sleep patterns.The problem of fatigued air traffic controllers are hardly a new one. In 2007, the National Transportation Safety Board released a report that shed light on how sleep deprivation affects job performance. The report revealed that air traffic controllers get an average of only 2.3 hours of sleep before a midnight shift. Rapidly rotating shifts and short rest periods between shifts lead workers to be fatigued before a shift even begins.
To make things worse, most midnight-shift air traffic controllers work alone. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association emphasizes staffing problems as the cause for both cases, and is demanding there be extra controllers during overnight shifts as safety measure.The FAA is hesitant to hire, because air traffic controllers generally earn high pay and have pricey benefits. The U.S. Labor Department Bureau of Statistics reports that the average salary of air traffic controllers was $109,218 in March 2009. Transportation officials may have a difficult time justifying that kind of cost in the current political and budgetary climate on Capitol Hill.
It’s possible that air traffic controllers will see some type of regulation that affects their schedules as a reaction to both incidents. In the meantime, the AASM has provided air traffic controllers and shift workers with a list of tips that can help with the midnight shift.