Scientists: Controllers need naps on the job

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The best solution to the problem of sleepy air traffic controllers is more sleeping on the job, scientists say.

But that would be a radical change for the Federal Aviation Administration. Current regulations forbid sleeping at work, even during breaks. Controllers who are caught can be suspended or fired.

Experts say that kind of thinking is outdated.

“There should be sanctioned on-shift napping. That’s the way to handle night shift work,” said Gregory Belenky, a sleep expert at Washington State University in Spokane. There are plenty of other scientists in the U.S. and around the world who agree with him. Sleep studies show that nighttime workers who are allowed “recuperative breaks” are more alert when they return to their tasks.

A working group on controller fatigue made up of officials from the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents controllers, recently embraced that position as well.

The issue has taken on a new urgency in the wake of four recent episodes in which the FAA says controllers fell asleep while on duty. The most recent case occurred this week when the pilot of a plane transporting a critically ill passenger was unable to raise the sole controller working at 2 a.m. in the tower of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada.

The FAA said the controller was out of communication for 16 minutes. Controllers at a regional radar facility in California assisted the plane, which landed safely.

The episodes have sent administration officials scrambling to assure the public and angry members of Congress that air travel is indeed safe. Even President Barack Obama weighed in, telling ABC News in an interview, “We’ve got it under control,” and warning controllers they must stay alert and do their jobs.

“The fact is when you’re responsible for the lives and safety of people up in the air, you better do your job,” he said in an interview Friday with “Good Morning America.”

Republicans in the House want to cut FAA’s budget by $4 billion over the next 3½ years, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that won’t prevent the agency from adding more controllers if that’s what’s necessary.

“We can’t let money stand in the way of safety,” he told NBC’s “Today.” “And we will work with Congress making sure we have the resources, we have the right number of controllers.”

In fact, the FAA and the controllers union — with assistance from NASA and the Mitre Corp., among others — has come up with 12 recommendations for tackling sleep-inducing fatigue among controllers. Among those recommendations is that the FAA change its policies to give controllers on midnight shifts as much as two hours to sleep plus a half-hour to wake up.

That would mark a profound change from current regulations that can make sleeping controllers subject to suspension or dismissal.

Yet, at most air traffic facilities, it’s common for two controllers working together at night to engage in unsanctioned sleeping swaps whereby one controller works two jobs while the other controller naps and then they switch off, present and former controllers told The Associated Press. The controllers requested not to be named because they didn’t want jeopardize their jobs or co-workers’ jobs.

More than two decades ago, NASA scientists concluded that airline pilots were more alert and performed better during landings when they were allowed to take turns napping during the cruise phase of flights. The FAA chose to ignore recommendations that U.S. pilots be allowed “controlled napping.” But other countries, using NASA’s research, have adopted such policies for their pilots.

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