04/19/2011 11:18 am ET Updated Jun 19, 2011

As The Government Cracks Down On Napping Air Traffic Controllers, A Former Controller (And Former Napper) Talks Back

In the opening paragraphs of "Something's Got to Give," Darcy Frey's classic 1996 profile of air traffic controllers, a team of controllers sit in a darkened operations room on Long Island, cursing and twitching "like a gathering of Tourette sufferers."

One controller "sinks his teeth into his cuticles." Another pumps his leg like "a pneumatic drill." People tend to think of air traffic control as a sedentary job, but Frey found plenty of action to enliven his prose. If you were to change a few nouns the passage would read like something from a pulp novel: "The controller rose from his chair with an animal scream, burst into a sweat and began tearing off his shirt."

Fifteen years later, journalists are once again chronicling the activities of air controllers. This time, though, it isn't the controllers' propensity to jump out of chairs that's brought them a flurry of attention, but their propensity to nap in them.

It started last month, when a controller at the Reagan National Airport in D.C. fell asleep while on duty, forcing two pilots to land jetliners unassisted. That incident alerted the public to the disturbing fact that controllers have been napping on the job, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to add a second controller to the midnight shift at some facilities, and leading to last week's resignation of the Federal Aviation Administration official in charge of the air traffic control system.

As it turns out, controller fatigue is nothing new. It was an issue even back in 1996, when Frey reported that frenzied scene. In fact, the insane levels of energy and endurance demanded by rush-hour shifts like the one Frey observed go a long way toward explaining why controllers are so worn out by the time their midnight shift comes around. Had Frey set his story late at night, he might have witnessed a scene similar to the one that took place last week in Miami, when a controller told on his colleague for dozing off -- the seventh such incident reported to the FAA this year.

On Sunday, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told Fox News that changes to the system were underway. To begin with, controllers would get an extra hour of sleep between consecutive day and night shifts. Yet, when LaHood was asked whether he'd consider taking a cue from countries like Germany and Canada, where controllers are allowed to take naps during their scheduled breaks, LaHood put his foot down.

"On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps," he said. "We're not going to allow that."

LaHood's anti-nap stance brought a swift rebuke from some air-traffic insiders, including Bill Voss, the president of the Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation. LaHood's statement made it clear that "politics are still the No. 1 priority in Washington," Voss remarked. "Public safety is second."

The government should condone napping in order to better regulate it, Voss argued in an interview with The Huffington Post. Napping has been tolerated in the business for decades, he said, "to the point of becoming almost normal on the shifts."

By refusing to provide controllers with specific times in which naps are sanctioned, Voss said, the government is inviting unintentional naps on the job.

Now, with the FAA ramping up enforcement of anti-napping rules, "we're going to pay managers overtime to check the break room and make sure they're watching infomercials instead of resting," Voss said. "That doesn't do much for the work environment."

In his 1996 article, Frey wrote of the controllers' work environment: "As soon as they sit down at the scopes, they are at the mercy of lousy equipment, absent-minded pilots, reckless colleagues, bad weather or maybe just the traffic getting heavier and heavier, like a hand constantly pushing at them from behind."

A lot of pressure -- but napping, at least, provided some relief. A former controller himself, Bill Voss said that when he started the job in 1982, napping during breaks was so commonplace that "nobody made anything of it." Asked whether he himself resorted to napping, he replied, "I'm sure I must have at some point. What you did on your break was nobody's business."