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Sleep Deprivation and Air Traffic Control

air traffic control tower at night

Photo: Comstock

Lack of sleep can make doing almost everything we need to do much more difficult.  Trying to do a job while sleep deprived often leads to poor job performance, something we all want to avoid.  This can be particularly problematic for those who make important and far-reaching decisions about the lives of others, such as politicians and ER doctors, to name a few.

A recent statement from the FAA highlights another profession for which lack of sleep can have very serious consequences: air traffic controllers.  The FAA reported yet another air traffic controller who fell asleep for about five hours during his shift. The controller was on the midnight shift on February 19th, 2011.  Air traffic controllers work in pairs, one handling incoming flights, and one working the radar.  According to the article, while the controller who was supposed to be handling the incoming flights was sleeping, the other controller working in the tower in Knoxville, landed planes and worked the radar position at the same time.  The FAA does not allow one person to do multiple jobs at the same time; this man was forced to do so as his colleague slept because he was too tired to stay awake.

We know this about sleep deprivation:  there are real physiological and psychological effects as we deprive our bodies of a basic physical need.  Our judgment isn’t always the best.  Our reaction time slows, our memory decreases, our bodies and minds slowdown in an effort to preserve the energy we have left.  In addition the more sleep deprived we get the less we notice it!

This is only the latest in sleep deprivation and fatigue-related incidents for the airline industry.  Remember the October, 2009 incident, where two Northwest Airlines pilots fell asleep in the cockpit and overshot their destination by 150 miles? Pilots, traffic controllers on the ground — these are people we rely on for our safety when we fly.

The FAA suspended the controller who fell asleep on the job and continues to try to enforce rules about safely working midnight shifts. My big question is:

Was this really the controller’s fault?

It sounds like in many of these cases, the air traffic controllers are being asked to work back to back shifts, and in some cases multiple days at a time. This is INSANE! It is a miracle we have not had more issues. And while I agree that no one should be working such a late shift by themselves, air traffic controllers, pilots, and anyone with responsibility late at night or after long days should also consider:

  • Avoiding using caffeine as a way to stay awake, unless for use in the short term only
  • Having a set sleep routine during both their work week and time off

After those pilots missed Minneapolis by 150 miles, the FAA rewrote its rules that govern flight time for pilots and their required rest periods in order to reduce the chances of fatigue.  Hopefully they will also do so for the air traffic controllers on the ground.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™
www.thesleepdoctor.com
Everything you do, you do better with a good night’s sleep™.
Facebook: thesleepdoctor
Twitter: @thesleepdoctor

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