Several countries — including France, Germany, Canada and Australia — also permit napping by controllers during breaks in their work shifts, said Peter Gimbrere, who heads the controllers association’s fatigue mitigation effort. Germany even provides controllers sleep rooms with cots, he said.
Sleep scientists long have known that fatigue affects human behavior much like alcohol, slowing reaction times and eroding judgment. People suffering from fatigue sometimes focus on a single task while ignoring other, more urgent needs.
One of the working group’s findings was that the level of fatigue created by several of the shift schedules worked by 70 percent of the FAA’s 15,700 controllers can have an impact on behavior equivalent to a blood-alcohol level of.04, Gimbrere said. That’s half the legal driving limit of .08.
“There is a lot of acute fatigue in the controller work force,” he said.
Controllers are often scheduled for a week of midnight shifts followed by a week of morning shifts and then a week swing shifts, a pattern that sleep scientists say interrupts the body’s natural sleep cycles.
Another common schedule compresses five eight-hour work shifts as close together as possible while still allowing controllers eight hours off in between each shift. The advantage is that controllers then get three days off at the end. But the shift is known as the “rattler” because controllers say it doubles back and bites those who work it.
One recommendation by the working group would require at least nine hours off between shifts instead of the current eight. Another would allow controllers to sleep during the 20-minute to 30-minute breaks they typically receive while working daytime shifts. Now, they can watch TV, play cards, have a snack — but not sleep.
But paying controllers who nap at work may be a tough sell in Congress. One influential lawmaker said building in time to sleep on the job is unacceptable.
“I think that is totally bogus,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told the AP. “There are so many professions that have to work long hours. I was greeted this morning by a young surgeon that had been working all night in an ER.”
Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va., and a former air traffic controller, disagreed.
“It’s not outrageous to have people in a safety job rest on duty,” Voss said, citing ER doctors and firefighters who have similar practices.
“What is crazy,” Voss said, “is putting two people onto a shift in a dark room with no noise and telling them to stare out a window and do nothing for eight hours, but to never fall asleep.”