People arrive at airports nationwide often anticipating falling asleep on the planes once they get past the security shakedown, redress themselves and repack their carry-on luggage.
But they want their pilots and flight crew alert and the people in the air traffic towers fully caffeinated. No passenger wants to worry about waking up in hell because of some unfortunate mishap caused by some sleep-deprived worker.
Yet, a study shows that air traffic controllers’ intense work schedules often lead to chronic fatigue. The study sprang from the National Transportation Safety Board recommending a need to revise air traffic controllers’ schedule to provide rest times that are long enough to enable controllers “to obtain sufficient restorative sleep,” The Associated Press reports. The board made the recommendation to the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
FAA officials had declined to share a copy of the report with The Associated Press despite repeated requests and a Freedom of Information Act appeal. The news service, however, got a draft of the final report dated Dec. 1, 2011. It’s easy to understand why federal officials were so guarded about the release of the 270-page study.
Air traffic controllers’ fatigue has been an ongoing threat to passenger safety. The study found that nearly two in 10 controllers had made significant errors in the previous year such as bringing planes too close together, and more than half attributed the problem to fatigue.
A third of the air traffic controllers cited fatigue as a “high” risk or “extreme” safety risk. More than six in 10 controllers said that in the previous year they had fallen asleep or experienced a lapse in attention while driving to or from midnight shifts, which mostly run from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Overall, controllers said they averaged 5.8 hours of sleep a day in the course of a work week. Some said they averaged only 3.25 hours before some shifts.
Passengers frequently have been told of flights being canceled because pilots, operating under mandatory sleep requirements, have to get their needed rest. Out of safety concerns, no one argues. Air traffic controllers should have the same sleep requirements, too.
The study followed instances of controllers falling asleep on the job, and in one 2011 case two airliners landed at Reagan National port in Washington, D.C., without assistance from the airport’s control tower, where the lone controller on duty had fallen asleep.
The report makes 17 recommendations to the FAA, including ending the mandatory six-day schedules. But for passenger safety as well as the safety of people on the ground, more air traffic controllers should be hired to provide for more breaks and rest time so that the controllers on duty get the rest they need to be alert throughout their shift.