Sleeping Air Traffic Controllers

by Staff | August 14th, 2015

Just this week the FAA posted a study showing that the work schedules of air traffic controllers lead to chronic fatigue, making them less alert and endangering the safety of the flying public. The study, authored in December, 2012, was kept secret by the FAA for years. It was only until the Associated Press made repeated requests through the Freedom of Information Act, that the FAA posted the study online. The reason for the study was a recommendation by the NTSB to the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to revise controller schedules that permitted periods of rest that are long enough to get “sufficient restorative sleep.”

The study, which surveyed the work of 3,268 controllers, found that 20% of controllers committed significant errors in the previous year, citing fatigue as the cause. More than 60% of those surveyed admitted to falling asleep or experiencing a “lapse in attention” while driving to and from midnight shifts at an airport. An examination of the sleep patterns of daytime controllers indicated that they averaged 5.8 hours of sleep per day while nightshift controllers averaged 3.1 hours of sleep prior to their shift. The most difficult schedule was one that required controllers to work five straight midnight shifts or to work six days a week for several weeks in a row. According to sleep experts, the body’s circadian rhythms make sleeping during daylight hours especially difficult. The study recommended that the FAA discontinue the mandatory six day schedules, which 15% of those surveyed were working. Six day work weeks remain common in spite of the admission by 30% of the surveyed controllers that they had committed a significant error in the previous year.

NASA produced the study at the request of the FAA after a series of controllers were found sleeping on the job. In 2011, two airliners landed at Washington’s Reagan National Airport late at night without assistance from the control tower. The only controller on duty that night was asleep.

You can find the study at www.faa.gov/data_research/media/NASA_Controller_Fatigue_Assessment_Report.pdf