Can the FAA keep air traffic controllers from napping?

After a series of air traffic controllers are caught sleeping on the job, the feds jolt them awake with new regulations

The Ronald Reagan National Airport control tower in Washington, DC, where an air traffic controller fell asleep in March, one of seven similar recent episodes.
(Image credit: Getty)

Already this year, seven air traffic controllers have been caught dozing off while planes circled overhead, waiting for landing instructions. Hoping to defuse this public-relations nightmare, the Department of Transportation, led by Ray LaHood, announced several reforms this weekend. The new rules require controllers to take nine hours off between shifts instead of eight, and to share the tougher overnight shifts with a partner. But some sleep experts say that scheduling naps during shifts, the norm in countries like Germany, is the only sure way to prevent controllers from nodding off. Who's right?

Naps are essential: LaHood said on Sunday that "on my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps." But "given the body of scientific evidence, that's putting politics ahead of public safety," says Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, as quoted by the AP. Authorities are really only "concerned about a political backlash if they allow controllers to have rest periods in their work shifts the same way firefighters and trauma physicians do."

"FAA gives tired controllers an extra hour to rest"

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No, we just need to scare people straight: We "respectfully disagree with scientists who believe air traffic controllers should get a two-hour nap during their work schedule," says The Midland Daily News in an editorial. The "bottom line" is that certain workers aren't doing their jobs well, and they need to be punished severely. Enough with the kid gloves: The FAA should adopt the military's view that sleeping on the job is a "dereliction of duty." The prospect of harsh penalties would probably help "keep people up at night."

"Our view: Enforce the 'no sleep' rule in control towers"

The FAA needs fewer workers: Only in the U.S. would the government try to solve "a labor situation in which the job is so boring and low-key that workers can't stay awake" by doubling the workforce, says Paul Bertorelli at AV Web Insider. But that's what we're doing by adding a second worker to some shifts. Instead of throwing people at the problem, the FAA should simply close some underused control facilities overnight, and turn over operations to a remote facility, equipping them with cameras if necessary. Pilots don't actually need much help; these experienced flyers "can actually taxi and find runways at night without federal assistance."

"More money = less snooze?"

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