Flying the Friendly ... Zzzzzz

Morgan O'Rourke


June 1, 2011

I don't sleep much. It's not insomnia or anything like that -- it's just that I don't like sleeping. More than six hours a night is rare and regardless of how late I went to bed, if I sleep past 7 a.m., I feel like I'm wasting the day. Even on weekends. I know it's probably not ideal, at least according to the experts, but it has worked for me for as long as I can remember.

Lately, however, it seems that my sleep habits (or lack thereof) would make me the perfect candidate for a new career in air traffic control. In the past few months, there have been multiple reports of air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job, so I'm thinking that someone who doesn't need a lot of sleep would be an asset to aviation.

In March, two different pilots had to land their planes without assistance from the tower at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington because the air traffic controller on duty had fallen asleep during his midnight shift. In the following weeks, similar reports surfaced around the country, including one from the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in which an air ambulance containing a sick passenger was forced to land on its own and another from Knoxville, Tennessee in which the controller was sleeping on a makeshift bed fashioned out of couch cushions and a blanket from the employee break room.

The sleeping controllers were either fired or suspended in most cases, and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood pledged to correct the problem, even going so far as to say in an appearance on ABC's World News, that, "We will not sleep until we can guarantee that there's good safety in the control towers when these planes are coming in and out of airports."

Bad pun aside, the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did put measures in place to prevent the problem from happening again, including adding a second air traffic controller to night shifts at the 27 control towers around the country that had only one person working during that time period. They also implemented new scheduling rules that mandate that controllers have at least nine hours off between shifts (instead of eight) and prevent them from working a midnight shift after a day off (a common method some controllers used to get what amounted to a three-day weekend).

One measure that has so far been dismissed by airline officials is napping, despite recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (the union that represents air traffic controllers) and long-standing evidence that on-shift naps are helpful for combating fatigue and improving performance. One 1995 NASA study, for instance, cited by Mark Rosekind, a NTSB member and fatigue expert who used to work for the space agency, determined that a 26-minute nap improves performance by 34% and alertness by 54%. Nevertheless, sleeping on the job has always been prohibited for air traffic controllers and LaHood remains against the idea. "Paying controllers to sleep will not be part of what we do at the FAA," he said in a CBS interview. "We're not going to pay controllers to nap."

While LaHood's stance may be understandable -- few employers pay you to sleep, after all -- napping is not unprecedented in the aviation world. In fact, several other countries, including Germany, Japan, Canada, France and Australia, allow their air traffic controllers to take naps during breaks. Some provide their controllers with cots and quiet rooms for that very purpose. Even a recent FAA-union working group on fatigue recommended that sleeping be allowed during breaks. The Department of Transportation, however, remains dead-set on maintaining its anti-sleep policy.

And therein lies a problem that is likely familiar to any risk manager who has tried to get buy-in on a new program. Tradition and status quo do not always provide the best environment for creative solutions. Doing something one way because that's the way it has always been done is not a strategy for growth -- it's a recipe for disaster.

Today's world is full of unprecedented threats, and these threats sometimes need to be dealt with in unprecedented ways. Sure, there's always the possibility that everyone is wrong and naptime for air traffic controllers is a bad idea. But at least naps offer a reasonable alternative, supported by years of research, to mitigate the risk that a fatigued controller presents to the safety of airline passengers and crew. It certainly seems more effective than minor policy changes like scheduling shifts an extra hour apart. All it requires is the willingness to look at a problem from a different perspective. Maybe they should sleep on it.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)