NATIONAL SLEEP FOUNDATION — Washington, DC, April 28, 2011– Americans are justifiably concerned by the recent spate of incidents involving air traffic controllers who fell asleep on duty. But now that the FAA/DoT has outlined the steps it intends to take to address this problem – minor tweaking of the controllers’ work/rest schedules combined with a threat of stricter disciplinary action against offending controllers in the future – the public’s response ought to escalate from concern to alarm.
This is because the announced changes amount to tokenism – gestures more likely to assuage public anxiety than to meaningfully reduce fatigue in air traffic controllers. For example, although it is true that extending the time off between shifts (from 8 to 9 hours) will probably result in more sleep (which is good) it will not result in adequate sleep (the amount of sleep necessary to sustain normal alertness during the night shift). Prior research shows (and common sense dictates) that a significant portion of the 9 hour break will be devoted to commuting, eating, personal hygiene, socializing with family, etc. If the FAA was truly serious about optimizing alertness in air traffic controllers, and if the policy makers based their decisions on scientific evidence, the time off between shifts would have been extended to at least 12 hours – and scheduled napping would now be encouraged during work shifts, rather than prohibited.
Likewise, prior sleep research (and, again, common sense) suggest that the threat of more severe punishment will have no beneficial effect on alertness. Those air traffic controllers who fell asleep did not do so because they were not properly motivated to maintain wakefulness. They fell asleep because they had a significant, physiological need for sleep. And they probably didn’t even realize they were falling asleep – sleep onset can be insidious. (Think about it. If sleep onset was not insidious, would anyone ever fall asleep while driving an automobile?)
Also, it should be pointed out that both the airline industry and the FAA have known about this problem for decades. In 1981 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) published a special investigative report on air traffic controller fatigue. However, the recommendations outlined in that report were essentially ignored – and classified as “Closed—Unacceptable Action” in 1989. Since then, the NTSB (which is the congressionally-mandated special investigative body charged with determining causes of transportation accidents) has issued more than 80 new fatigue-related safety recommendations. Care to guess how many of these recommendations have been implemented?
History is replete with accidents resulting in human death and injury caused by sleepy transportation workers, and the NTSB routinely cites air traffic controller fatigue in its findings. One tragic example is the August 2006 accident involving Comair flight 5191 in Lexington, Kentucky, in which the air traffic controller cleared the plane for take-off on the wrong runway, resulting in a crash that killed 49 people.
Unfortunately, given the inadequate response to the recent incidents, we can expect more sleep and sleepiness-related errors and accidents involving air traffic controllers in the future.