After yet another air traffic controller was suspended last week for falling asleep on the job, the Federal Aviation Administration has announced that it is changing their schedules so its employees are less likely to suffer from fatigue. A controller nodded off while on the job on a late-Friday-to-Saturday-morning shift at the Miami enroute control center, the eighth such instance this year. The controller was suspended on Saturday.
In January, one controller fell asleep twice on the same shift in January. In Feburary, two pilots had to land their jetliners on their own at after Washington Reagan National Airport after a controller fell asleep around midnight. Just last week, a controller in Nevada went to sleep for almost 16 minutes and an airborne ambulance carrying a patient had to land on its own.
Midnight shifts typically begin around 10 pm and end at 6am and roughly about one-third of shifts are midnight ones. Controllers in the US are not allowed to take naps during breaks, though controllers in some other countries including Germany and Japan can. The New York Times points out that “scientists say it would be surprising if controllers didn’t doze sometimes because they are trying to stay awake during the time of day when the body naturally craves sleep.” 30 percent to 50 percent of night-shift workers report falling asleep at least once on the job once a week, according to Dr. Charles Czeisler, chief of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Indeed, the New York Times also cites interviews of present and former air traffic controllers by the Associated Press in which they (anonymously) noted that “on midnight shifts, one controller will work two positions while the other one sleeps and then they switch off.”
As the Wall Street Journal reports, the head of the FAA’s traffic-control organization stepped down last week under pressure. Under the just-announced FAA regulations, it’s suggested that overnight shifts end at 2am instead of at dawn. At the suggestion of fatigue experts, the FAA is considering prohibiting controllers from working four consecutive overnight shifts or adding extra work hours into shifts, so they can have three consecutive work days off.
Should the FAA follow other countries and let air traffic controllers nap on their shifts?
Photo by hmpnole.
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