5 Things You Should Know about Air Traffic Controllers

Air Traffic Controllers: Long Hours, Little Sleep

There have been a lot of news stories in recent weeks about alleged lapses by air traffic controllers especially, sleeping on the job. It turns out that napping during overnight shifts when there is little or no aircraft movement may not be all that rare, and may even be necessary – at least to hear what some former air traffic controllers say.

Former Controllers Speak Out

We heard stories from three former controllers, and I think what they have to say may surprise you – or at least, give you a different view. Tell me on Facebook whether you agree with them – or not. You be the judge here.

5 Things You Should Know about Air Traffic Controllers and Fatigue

This is an insider’s perspective and we pass it along to you.

1. Working the Rattler

This is the nickname for the shift so many air traffic controllers work – where five days worth of shifts are compressed into just a few days, to maximize time off. And yes, it includes overnights with sometimes just 8 hours between shifts. “It’s painful,” said Tom Anthony, a former controller and now Director of the University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety and Security Program; he’d stay awake by alternately eating too much or doing push-ups, jumping jacks, and sometimes simply digging his nails in his thighs as he’d sit there watching an empty screen.

2. Like Being Drunk without Alcohol

How bad is the accumulated fatigue of endless rattler shifts? Former controller Bill Voss who know heads up the respected Flight Safety Foundation, said, “If you don’t sleep on that midnight shift, your performance can degrade so it’s as though you’re legally drunk.” A study on the effects of fatigue on the foundation’s website sure seems to back that up.

3. The Dangerous Drive Home

Getting through your shift isn’t the only challenge. Said Anthony, “I totaled my car driving home from a ‘rattler’ shift.” Don’t forget that there are just 8 hours between some of the shifts in the rattler; can you drive home from work, and back, maybe have a meal and chat with family members, and get enough sleep – in a mere 8 hours? The good news is, they just raised that to 9 hours – does that help? I have my doubts.

4. “Political” Solutions

Former controller Sid McGuirk says Dept. of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s statement that “On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps,” is “great political rhetoric” but – well, all three former controllers we spoke too don’t think it does anything to solve the problem. Which bring us to #5:

5. Nap Time is Necessary

Naps for air traffic controllers working the overnight shift? They do it in a lot of countries such as Germany and Japan. And McGuirk, who is now a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, points out that other public servant/government employee-types such as firefighters have cots in the station, so they can rest when there’s nothing to do.

Tell me – what do you think? Should controllers nap when there’s nothing to do? Let’s take the discussion to Facebook.

More from Rick Seaney:

5 Confessions of Air Traffic Controllers

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Published: April 26, 2011