National Sleep Foundation Responds to Air Traffic Controller Issue

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May 18, 2011

Washington, DC, April 28, 2011-- Americans are justifiably concerned by the recent spate of incidents involving air traffic controllers who fell asleep on duty.  But now that the FAA/DoT has outlined the steps it intends to take to address this problem – minor tweaking of the controllers’ work/rest schedules combined with a threat of stricter disciplinary action against offending controllers in the future – the public’s response ought to escalate from concern to alarm.

This is because the announced changes amount to tokenism – gestures more likely to assuage public anxiety than to meaningfully reduce fatigue in air traffic controllers.  For example, although it is true that extending the time off between shifts (from 8 to 9 hours) will probably result in more sleep (which is good) it will not result in adequate sleep (the amount of sleep necessary to sustain normal alertness during the night shift).  Prior research shows (and common sense dictates) that a significant portion of the 9 hour break will be devoted to commuting, eating, personal hygiene, socializing with family, etc.  If the FAA was truly serious about optimizing alertness in air traffic controllers, and if the policy makers based their decisions on scientific evidence, the time off between shifts would have been extended to at least 12 hours – and scheduled napping would now be encouraged during work shifts, rather than prohibited. 

Likewise, prior sleep research (and, again, common sense) suggest that the threat of more severe punishment will have no beneficial effect on alertness.  Those air traffic controllers who fell asleep did not do so because they were not properly motivated to maintain wakefulness.  They fell asleep because they had a significant, physiological need for sleep.  And they probably didn’t even realize they were falling asleep – sleep onset can be insidious. (Think about it. If sleep onset was not insidious, would anyone ever fall asleep while driving an automobile?)

Also, it should be pointed out that both the airline industry and the FAA have known about this problem for decades.  In 1981 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) published a special investigative report

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