04/21/2011 08:52 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Air Traffic Controllers Sleeping on the Job: Is It Really Their Fault?

Lack of sleep can make doing almost anything we need to do much more difficult. Trying to do a job while sleep deprived often leads to poor job performance, something we all want to avoid. This can be particularly problematic for those who make important and far-reaching decisions about the lives of others, such as politicians and ER doctors, to name a few.

A recent statement from the FAA highlights another profession for which lack of sleep can have very serious consequences: air traffic controllers. The FAA reported yet another air traffic controller who fell asleep for about five hours during his shift in Knoxville, Tenn. The controller was on the midnight shift on February 19, 2011. Air traffic controllers work in pairs, one handling incoming flights, and one working the radar. According to the article, while the controller who was supposed to be handling the incoming flights was sleeping, the other controller working in the tower landed planes and worked the radar position at the same time. The FAA does not allow one person to do multiple jobs at the same time; this man was forced to do so while his colleague slept because the latter was too tired to stay awake.

We know this about sleep deprivation: there are real physiological and psychological effects as we deprive our bodies of a basic physical need. Our judgment isn't always the best, our reaction time slows, our memory decreases and our bodies and minds slow down in an effort to preserve the energy we have left. In addition, the more sleep-deprived we get, the less we notice it!

This is only the latest in sleep-deprivation- and fatigue-related incidents for the airline industry. Remember the October 2009 incident in which two Northwest Airlines pilots fell asleep in the cockpit and overshot their destination by 150 miles? Pilots and air traffic controllers on the ground -- these are people we rely on for our safety when we fly.

The FAA suspended the controller who fell asleep on the job and continues to try to enforce rules about safely working midnight shifts. My big question is this: Was this really the controller's fault?

It sounds like in many of these cases, the air traffic controllers are being asked to work back-to-back shifts, and in some cases multiple days at a time. This is insane, and it is a miracle that we have not had more issues. And while I believe that no one should be working such a late shift by himself or herself, air traffic controllers, pilots and anyone with responsibilities late at night or after long days should also consider the following:

  • Taking naps earlier in the day before their shift

  • Avoiding using caffeine as a way to stay awake -- unless for use in the short term only
  • Having a fixed sleep routine during both their work week and their time off
  • After those pilots missed Minneapolis by 150 miles, the FAA rewrote its rules that govern flight time for pilots, and they require rest periods in order to reduce the chances of fatigue. Hopefully they will also do so for the air traffic controllers on the ground.

    Sweet dreams,

    Michael J. Breus, Ph.D.
    The Sleep Doctor™
    "Everything you do, you do better with a good night's sleep"™