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Outside editorial: Birds gotta fly, flight controllers need to sleep

Posted: April 20, 2011 - 9:20pm

The following editorial first appeared in The Sacramento Bee:

Napping on the job will be strictly forbidden. Sounds reasonable, but is it?

Following the discovery of several air traffic controllers caught sleeping on duty in recent weeks, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood handed down a no-napping edict this past weekend.

But can a government edict prevent bone-tired air traffic controllers working the midnight shift, the swing shift or two shifts in a row from falling asleep? Given the biology of sleep, would allowing for scheduled naps during working hours enhance public safety?

That’s the question that the flying public needs to ask. In the wake of eight separate sleeping incidents involving air traffic controllers, the Federal Aviation Administration has added a second controller to towers at some 20 other airports across the country where only one controller once staffed the night shift.

The agency has also changed scheduling rules. Among other changes, controllers must now have a minimum of nine hours off between shifts, instead of the current eight. And they will no longer be allowed to swap shifts unless they will have that minimum nine hours off between the end of the first shift and the beginning of their next.

Those changes may not be enough to ensure controllers are getting enough sleep to keep them alert.

A new fatigue study conducted by the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers found that weeks of shifting schedules from daytime to nighttime to swing shift — a common pattern among air traffic controllers — can leave controllers dangerously sleep deprived. The chief recommendation in the study, which has not been released officially, calls for scheduled sleeping breaks as long as 2 hours for controllers on night shifts, with other controllers filling in.

This is a common practice in other countries, including Germany and Japan, where special rooms are made available for use by napping controllers.

Studies involving long-distance truck drivers and pilots as well as air traffic controllers and others who regularly work at night have documented the danger of disrupting normal biological sleep rhythms.

If pre-planned nap times for air traffic controllers can improve safety for the flying public, the FAA ought to consider them.

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