Asleep At The Console?

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The FAA isn't saying whether a controller who allegedly fell asleep while on duty in Charleston, S.C., last month has faced disciplinary action. But spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen did say that he's been cleared medically and has returned to work. A fellow controller arriving for work allegedly found his colleague dozing at the scope about 6 a.m. on Sept. 13. "He allegedly dozed off for a few minutes," Bergen told The Associated Press. "We're looking into the circumstances surrounding the allegations that someone was sleeping on duty." No flights were affected but things were about to get busy with the early morning departures. Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) told The Associated Press he wasn't surprised, since a shortage of staff has resulted in six-day workweeks and a heavy workload for many controllers. "This is a tired work force, no doubt about it," he said. "There are fewer controllers handling more traffic than ever before," he said. But a controller who contacted AVweb disputes the prevalence of six-day workweeks, while agreeing that controllers can get dangerously tired on midnight shifts.

The controller says he'll be fired if we identify him publicly. We have established his identity and spoken with him on the phone. He told AVweb the problem isn't necessarily the workload or the shifts themselves, it's the scheduling of the shifts. Sometimes he'll work from early morning to early afternoon and be back at work late that same evening for the midnight shift. "People are unaware that when they depart an airport in the morning (or anytime), probably 40 to 60 percent of the controllers working their flights all along the way have only had two to four hours of sleep, sometimes for two to three days, sometimes less," he said. "There are no standard sleep patterns for people working these kinds of schedules." The controller also noted that the end of the midnight shift, when controllers are at their worst, is often the busiest part of the day. I have often wondered how many controllers have been injured or killed driving home after those shifts or have hurt someone else," he said. "I know that quite often, I have an extremely hard time staying awake on the way home."