FAA Jarred Awake By Sleeping Air Traffic Controllers

April 19, 2011

Brian Naylor

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Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt is visiting air traffic control facilities across the country this week, meeting with controllers about an issue that has gotten the agency a lot of unwanted publicity lately: sleeping on the job.

At least a half-dozen controllers have been reported nodding off in recent weeks. Babbitt says that won't be tolerated, but controllers say it's a common problem with no easy answer.

The issue of sleeping air traffic controllers is not a new one. Retired air traffic controller Don Brown says it came up throughout his 25 years on the job. In fact, he admits that it happened to him on occasion:

"I have found myself falling asleep many a times," he says. "The big thing is you try to stay engaged with something. You can't leave the position — you can get up and walk around a little bit. But the biggest thing is to stay engaged with something — at least have a conversation with the controller you're working with."

Brown retired from the Air Route Traffic Control Center outside Atlanta and now blogs on air traffic control issues. FAA administrator Babbitt met with controllers in Atlanta yesterday, carrying the message that sleeping on the job is unacceptable. He also spoke with NPR's Talk of the Nation.

"We absolutely cannot and will not tolerate controllers sleeping on the job when they're supposed to be controlling airplanes," he told host Neal Conan. "We're working with controllers to take a good hard look at some of the scheduling practices. Some of the things we've done will provide a better sleep opportunity, rest opportunities for the controllers, so that they can in fact arrive to work rested and ready to go to work."

Over the weekend, the FAA introduced new scheduling practices aimed at reducing controller fatigue. One target of the new rules is "the rattler" — controller slang for working day and overnight shifts in rapid succession. Babbitt says they'll have to start taking at least nine hours off between shifts.

The FAA has also moved to double-staff the towers at 27 facilities that now have only one person on the overnight shift. But Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica of Florida, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, says that's a waste of money:

"I can't think of a bigger insult to the taxpayer in the week that people are paying their federal income tax than doubling up for federal employees that are not doing their job," Mica says. "This can be handled I think through scheduling, and also may have to deal with some of the contracts they have with the unions where they try to jam people in for a number of days and have them off for other days."

Controllers have worked such schedules in part to get longer weekends. Brown, the retired controller, says the FAA is also chronically understaffed, and that Babbitt's solutions fall short of addressing the real problem:

"The best solution to being sleepy is to let people sleep. But this being America, we are not going to pay people to sleep on their shifts," Brown says.

That's what the governments of some countries, including Japan and Germany, do: They allow controllers to sleep during their breaks. In fact, a study commissioned by the FAA and the controllers union recommended a similar policy in the U.S. But Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has flatly ruled out that approach, saying "On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.