Don’t be fooled by the apparent epidemic of air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job — it’s a longstanding problem that the Federal Aviation Administration has failed to address in an effective way. And Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s decision to extend from eight to nine hours the minimum time between shifts is unlikely to keep all controllers alert when they work overnight shifts.
In January, a working group of officials from the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association recommended authorizing controllers to take naps as long as two and a half hours on midnight shifts, while colleagues cover for them. The group also called for letting controllers nap during the 20- to 30-minute breaks they get every few hours during daytime shifts. The proposals grew out of research by NASA, the Air Force, and other sleep experts.
But in a blatantly political pronouncement, LaHood said Sunday, “On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps.’’ Never mind that trauma doctors, firefighters, and other emergency workers regularly nap during their shifts. Japan, Germany, and other countries authorize naps for flight controllers and even provide cots and quiet rooms.
LaHood should wake up, smell the coffee, and reconvene the FAA’s controller fatigue working group with an eye toward solving this problem — not grandstanding about it.