Should the FAA Allow Controllers to Take Sleep Breaks?

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As this somnambulant controller situation goes from the ridiculous to the utterly ridiculous, I was happy to be diverted by this video of the Navy dousing a flaming F-18 that trapped aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson last week. I'll get to why the two are related in a minute, but first let me say that I'm glad this is the centennial year of Naval Aviation. Perhaps the Navy can explain to the world at large how it is they return from a cruise with any airplanes, never mind entire wings.

The reason I say that is because I've embarked aboard a couple of carriers and watched, in detail, how the Navy does flight operations, especially recoveries. Off the coast of North Carolina, I stood on the LSO platform of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt on a black, overcast night while a couple of air wings re-qualified for deployment to the Persian Gulf. To get a better view of the trap, one of the LSOs suggested I lower my goggles and poke my head out from behind the spray shield as the airplane passed over the ramp. The sensation is shocking. The airplane whizzes by, the hook drags on the deck creating not just a few sparks, but a big geyser of them, followed by a slam onto the deck that shakes the hell out of the entire aft end of the boat. The unexpected part is that after the arrestment, when the pilot lights the burners briefly, the cool breeze momentarily turns into a hot, oily blast seasoned by bits of loose deck abrasive material and slivers of broken wire, hence the goggles. They'll do that routine all night long, one after another.

It's not so much of an amazement that any of this works well, but that it works at all. There are so many opportunities for something—or many somethings—to go wrong on a carrier and almost all of them are bad. By long experience, the Navy has evolved reliable, interlocking and overlapping safety systems in which everything is watched and monitored. They film everything. The watchers have watchers. (Ever see that video of the crewman being sucked into the engine of an A-6? That happened on TR and they've got it in the film library.)

On the LSO platform there's an enlisted sailor—the hook talker--whose only job, in daylight, is to watch the airplanes on downwind and check that their wheels, flaps and hooks are down, which he announces out loud: "Hornet, wheels down, flaps down, hook down." The need to triple check things like this is obvious. A gear-up landing on a carrier would be disastrous. But the hook talker does something else that's interesting. When the airplanes roll out on final, he says "groove," then "short" when it's close in and, finally, "ramp" when it's crossing the ship's ramp. The LSOs can obviously see the airplane so it's not obvious why the hook talker makes this call.

Later in my ship tour I found out the reason for these calls. Carriers have four cross deck pendants—wires—to catch the aircraft hooks. Each wire has its own arrestment engine just below deck, each situated in a long, narrow compartment. These are basically giant hydraulic rams that soak up the energy as the wire pays out. They require care and feeding by three our four operators in each compartment, who have to get the engine back into battery after each arrestment and set the ram's hydraulic orifice for whatever is landing next. In other words, they've got fingers, arms, legs and heads in and around machinery that within seconds will explode into violent motion. So they've got their own guy (or woman) who listens via interphone and repeats the hook talker's calls. When they hear "ramp," they reflexively back away from the machinery and wait.

They never know which wire will get the trap. The night we were aboard, three and four were getting most of the business. Yet, in the midst of all of this, with cables whizzing over sheaves, blobs of grease flying and the oven-like heat of all that energy being dissipated by hydraulic oil pushed through valves and pipes, a sailor slept. In the corner of one of the compartments, out of the way, he snoozed as soundly as if he were in his own bedroom. The senior chief conducting the tour pointed out that these kids had been on duty for 18 hours straight. Naps aren't begrudged; the Navy goes with the circadian flow. Or at least on this ship they did.

And that brings us full circle to the FAA's problem, where controller naps aren't just begrudged, but are a firing offense. This despite the fact that the swing shift routine some controllers have to work is a pace perhaps more killing than those sailors aboard the Roosevelt. And this despite the fact that none of the sleeping incidents have compromised safety and most have occurred at facilities where there are so few airplanes that separation isn't even needed, much less compromised.

Like the FAA, the Navy addresses its safety problems by throwing people at them. But if what I saw on the Roosevelt is at all a common practice, at the unit level, it also recognizes that humans have limits and you get more out of them if you don't construct unrealistic rules that force them to do what they simply cannot. And throwing more people into the mix probably doesn't help.

It looks like the FAA may be recognizing this, albeit slowly. It announced this week that schedules would allow more time between shifts for controllers headed for a string of mids. Assigning controllers to midshifts for longer periods might also help, giving them a chance to adjust to night hours. One study the FAA and NATCA did seemed suggest that sleep breaks of up to 2.5 hours would help.

It might come to that. If it works for the Navy, why not the FAA? Not that the Navy is perfect. The night after we left the TR, the U.S.S. Leyte Gulf and the TR collided, doing a total of $16 million in damages to both ships. The cause? A communication and procedures oversight that somehow slipped through the Navy's overlapping systems, showing that even well-rested people make mistakes.

TUESDAY ADDITION: A reader wrote to remind me that most of the controllers and supervisors involved in these sleeping incidents have been suspended, not fired. Good point. I was in error to say sleeping is a firing offense. The FAA did say the controller involved in the Knoxville incident will be fired.

Today, we're reporting about another incident in which a controller was watching a movie on a portable DVD player while working traffic during a slow period at Cleveland Center. Who was it who said controllers are their own worse enemies? I would suggest this to any controller considering this sort of thing: How's it going to play with the guy sitting in seat 29B? Does he have a reasonable expectation that you, as a controller, should do what you're paid to do; focus on separating airplanes?

Seems to me the answer should be yes, even though the movie-watching thing probably isn't much of a safety breach, if it is at all. But on a scale of professional best practices, it rates about a three.

Comments (35)


Good points.... and if controllers need breaks, and maybe even naps during their stints on the boards.... then why is it that airline pilots are expected to fly for 9 hours... with no breaks and no naps.... not to mention the fact that these government workers make more than the average airline pilot.... makes you wonder....

Posted by: Scott Perdue | April 18, 2011 7:51 AM    Report this comment

As a former controller, I would like to explain a few facts to the flying public. When I was first hired by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), I was told that the job would require me to work "shift work". Would I be willing to work "shift work"? Up to that point in my life, my reality and the FAA's definition of "shift work" were not properly introduced. I answered 'yes' to the aforementioned question, because I wanted to be an air traffic controller. "Dave...I'd like you to meet 'shift work'...'shift work'...Dave". SMACK!!!
That was the sound of reality slappin' me upside the head. Two nights...two days...and a mid. What's that you say? It's called "the rattler". First day of work (commonly referred to as "my Monday" matter WHAT day of the week your first day of work is in the REAL world) I would report for work at 4:00 p.m. and work until midnight. The second day, I would work the same shift. My third day, I would report to work at 8:00 a.m. and work until 4:00 p.m.
My fourth day would again be from 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. My fifth day, I would report for work at midnight and work until 8:00 a.m. My sixth day (mandatory overtime)...another midnight until 8:00 a.m. And on the seventh day, Dave rested so he could do it all over again the following week.

Posted by: Dave Khanoyan | April 18, 2011 8:14 AM    Report this comment


Note the 8 hours between shifts. Can YOU commute home...grab a bite to eat...and decompress...before falling asleep for a sufficient amount of an eight hour period? Spend time with family and friends? Forget about it. You're makin' the BIG bucks that all the newspapers report as a controller's average salary.
My hat is off to those men and women who continue to keep pushin' tin. Pilots and passengers shouldn't lose any sleep over what has become the lead story, as of late. The sky is NOT falling.

Posted by: Dave Khanoyan | April 18, 2011 8:16 AM    Report this comment

When I flew INTL on the 767ER we had 3 pilots and we rotated to a seat in the cabin and on an 8-10 hour flight time we each got a 3 hour nap,eat dinner etc.It wasnt the best but it was much safer.We were all three up in our cockpit seats for T/O and landing.When I hear about all the FAA controllers I empathize because I was there when I flew the L-1011 International where there were NO naps allowed, officially, but naps happened.So people will adapt. The FAA will have to add some new jobs over this problem but it will get resolved! Remember the FAA administrator Randy Babbitt was an airline pilot so he knows how difficult circadian rhythms are to deal with.Airline pilots have been trying to solve this problem for a lot of years.The solution will be found but you can bet it will cost us taxpayers and the traveling public big $$.cs

Posted by: Charlie Sherman | April 18, 2011 9:24 AM    Report this comment

I can well understand the issue. I used to work the extra board with a major freight company. We could be dispatched upon return from a run, 10hrs later. We were called 8 hrs after our return, for a 2 hr call. This could go on 7 days a week, for weeks on end. Ever wonder how the eighteen wheeler drivers do it.
Try working construction on a 7/12 schedule. Sure it's one shift, but no "nappy time" here. I think it is absurd to even contemplate naps for controllers. We always hear about how overworked they are. they are apparently not working hard enough to stay awake. I have a great deal of respect for the true professionals who control our airspace. For the few non-hackers, I say maybe change your lifestyle, or get another job. My 2 cents.

Posted by: PAUL SCHAFER | April 18, 2011 9:39 AM    Report this comment

The Miami controller fell asleep with 11 peers and two supervisors on shift. Will a second controller in the single-manned towers really accomplish anything?

Posted by: Jerome Miller | April 18, 2011 9:41 AM    Report this comment

I've got a solution to this problem AND saving the gov't money at the same time. Why not make those airports with Mid shifts as Uncontrolled fields? It was widely reported that DCA only had 4 flights all night...that's a highly-paid, highly-trained Controller basically wasting his time with 4 airplanes. This will work because the 2 airplanes did exactly what they did when they were flying C-150's...they announced their position and landed...whew that was tough!

A couple of years ago, I flew into Charleston AFB/Int'l about 2am and it was that case, a couple of controllers makes sense, but not for 4 airplanes.

Posted by: R. Doe | April 18, 2011 10:16 AM    Report this comment

"Ridiculous to the utterly ridiculous" hits it on the head.

The FAA brass' explosively negative reaction to the suggestion that a controller be allowed to nap on breaks reflects their fear that they will be buried by complaints that the government is "paying people to sleep".

At one point in my military years I worked a communications job that featured a 4-4-4-4 schedule (four days, four swings, four mids, four off). As a young troop the "four off" at first seemed like a super perk, but shortly we found even young bodies were not immune to the negative physiological effects. Those last four mid-shifts were killers and "bad propagation conditions" were blamed for many an unanswered call.

Posted by: John Wilson | April 18, 2011 10:25 AM    Report this comment

@John Wilson...You are absolutely correct, sir! Until you are forced to work these ungodly shifts, you have no idea how this affects you mentally, as well as physically. Many professions contribute to sleep deprivation. This fact does not justify that the practice continue in perpetuity. Many a time (too numerous to mention) those "rumble strips" along side the highway have prevented me from becoming another "statistic" added to the list of automobile fatalities. I am also extremely thankful that I didn't drift into your lane. Fade to black...

Posted by: Dave Khanoyan | April 18, 2011 11:22 AM    Report this comment

Money spent for more controllers is for CYA, not flight safety. That's why it's a total waste of limited dollars.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 18, 2011 12:10 PM    Report this comment

I agree with the folks that say do away with the controllers where they are not needed. what ever ATC facility is putting the airplane to the "contact the tower" point knows who else is in the vicinity, and the pilots should certainly be capable of operating with the tower frequency used as a CTAF just as they did at Podunk Junction when they were learning to fly.

Posted by: Martie Williams | April 18, 2011 3:09 PM    Report this comment

Speaking only for myself, when the "nodding off" begins, the only solution is a 15 minute nap, and it works great. Much better than pumping full of caffeine.

I hope the FAA will come to realize how strong circadian rhythms are and allow naps when a person needs one.

Posted by: Richard Sinnott | April 18, 2011 3:48 PM    Report this comment

Back when I worked line maintenance for an airline, you were not allowed to sleep during your 30 minute lunch break if you were on the 2nd or 3rd shifts. The company logic was, you were receiving a several cent per hour pay differential for working at night and they weren't going to pay you for sleeping. The 1st shift, technically, had a 30 minute "unpaid" lunch.

Posted by: Charles LaBow | April 18, 2011 4:10 PM    Report this comment

Should the controller get as much sleep as possible in the middle of the day before a mid-shift, YES, just try that with a wife and one or more kids vying for your time.

I just know that the pillow hidden in the tower was for "back" support and the blanket was for those nights when you could not get the AC right.

Of course some of us who found themselves nodding off took the time to crank the radios up full volume and the shout boxes. The ringing phone was a no brainer, always woke most people up.

Ahh, the good old days.


Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 18, 2011 6:27 PM    Report this comment

There is emerging understanding in the medical community that many people suffer from sleep disorders such as sleep apnia. I wonder how many of these controllers have sleep disorders. It's a serious problem. People with sleep disorders never fully enter level four sleep and don't really sleep. The result is falling asleep at inappropriate times, lower concentration, increased potential for accidents, heart conditions and other health issues. Testing people who will be on shift duty for sleep disorders is a much better idea than the rules the FAA is proposing. I think they will find it will not solve the problem.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | April 18, 2011 7:36 PM    Report this comment


Have you noticed that there have been ZERO responses from current air traffic controllers? Hmmmmmmm...
Let's try to understand why, shall we?
One would think that the men and women employed by the FAA and who work in the Tower Cabs and Radar Rooms have opinions and could offer their solutions. Are you familiar with the term "Fear of Retribution"? Air Traffic Controllers are QUITE familiar with the term. Since this blog does not allow anonymous responses...their voices shall remain silent.
Whatever you NOT do a story on how often a civilian Controller (non-Fed) works by him/herself in a "contract" Tower Cab. You might have to report the truthful answer to that question, which would start the hand-wringing anew...

Posted by: Dave Khanoyan | April 19, 2011 5:31 AM    Report this comment

The problem with reverting to non-towered on the mid shift (not a new concept BTW-most small class D airports do this) is that the general public believes that the tower controllers talk the planes to the ground and without them, no one can land safely. They've watched Airplane! too many times.

Rotating shift work can and has been done with a level of safety. I went to Navy nuclear power school in Idaho where we did 12 hour rotating shifts. We did 7 days of days, then a day off, then 7 days of swing shift, 2 days off, then 7 days of mid shift with 4 days off and started all over again. It took a couple of days to get into it, but it seemed to work (at least for 20 years olds).

The problem is that there doesn't seem to be anyone in the FAA that has a clue about anything. They're using the crisis-du-jour to boast their budget so they can hire more career bureaucrats. Career bureaucrats is the problem, not the solution.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | April 19, 2011 8:08 AM    Report this comment

Dave, actually, there have been a few responses from active controllers in some of these blogs. I can't comment on the retribution thing; no frame of reference on that one.

But I think it's fair to say controllers and federal employees in general have better downside protection against dismissal than do private sector workers.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 19, 2011 10:03 AM    Report this comment

I have read many interesting points of view, some for, some against. I personally think another controller in the tower is a good thing. I worked night shift at a few jobs. While the pay wasnt bad, how I ever survived the car ride home was a miracle. We were never meant to be nocturnal. Even when your on midshift for a period of time, you never fully adjust. I would like everyone to imagine themselves in a cab at night when its dark, and not super busy. How long do you think you can keep up on an 8 on, 8 off, 8 on shift??? It is easy to condemn people when you work your 9-5 routine 5 days a week, but try a rotating schedule and see how it works out for you. We need to be empathetic here, yes they are highly paid, but they earn every bit of it. My .02

Posted by: rob haschat | April 19, 2011 10:07 AM    Report this comment

In many ways, this problem and the resulting discussion shows how the FAA thinks and in some ways, fails to resolve key issues in safety. When the Colgan flight crashed at Buffalo (KBUF), the FAA chose to increase the experience levels for ATP ratings, not fully address the issues of inadequate sleep for pilots, particularly those flying for smaller carriers with "thinner" bottom lines. The FAA never really pushes to hard against the financial interests or the air transportation industry. (Part of the "double edge sword" the agency is charged with. Enhance safety-promote aviation.) Now the issue of irregular shift work and additional staffing at under manned facilities is beginning to hit home.

Posted by: Charles LaBow | April 19, 2011 2:27 PM    Report this comment

Yes, controllers should be allowed to take scheduled sleep breaks just like they are allowed to take coffee and lunch breaks.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 20, 2011 12:21 AM    Report this comment

I still beg to ask why a controller is needed in those hours where traffic is thin? CTAF imho serves safety just fine.

Posted by: Michael Schupp | April 20, 2011 5:33 AM    Report this comment

In 1955-56, as a 17/18 year-old Shift Supervisor in the K-16 (Seoul City Air Base) tower our schedual was intense: Swing, Afternoon, Morning,Midm and a day off. Then at it again. On swings and mids, we had a two folks, one awake (under threat of Courts Martial) and one asleep. Even in the dark ages we recognized the effects of shift work and compensated. I guess today we are too sophisticated to apply reason to obvious problems.

Posted by: Kenneth Nolde | April 20, 2011 6:45 AM    Report this comment

I'm also a former controller from MSP .... and back in the day (prior to everyone having cell phones) when I was the A-side, the FPL controllers would tell me where they were hiding and napping so when it was their time on the boards, I'd come and wake them up. Sure, it was breaking the rules, but we had rested controllers working that 4AM - 6AM rush. We also had the 2-2-1 rotation at MSP.

Posted by: Mark Schmit | April 20, 2011 7:53 AM    Report this comment

Naps in the break room are a no-brainer. They should all quit posturing and move on.

Posted by: Mark Higbee | April 20, 2011 8:13 AM    Report this comment

Current air traffic controller, has been working the rattler every week for the past three years...there is a small risk of retribution from the FAA if I give away the wrong kind of details here...but I will say this. Ray LaHood would like you to think that he is offended by the idea of "paying air traffic controllers to sleep." We've been getting paid to sleep for decades. It's the only way to make this insane schedule work. Granted, the "rattler" is not forced on us by the FAA, at least not where I was voted into effect by the local union. But the alternative means working high traffic periods for an entire week or more, which has its own obvious drawbacks. Mgmt at the local level understands the demands of the schedule and has turned a blind eye to breakroom napping, so long as the controller comes back to work wide awake. I have two small children and a wife...coming home from work at 2 PM and returning at 10 PM to work a mid doesn't allow for much sleep in my home. You figure out how I make that work...but my radios are in speaker with the volume turned way up so I don't miss anything important.

Posted by: Jason Wilson | April 20, 2011 9:19 AM    Report this comment

@Jason...We all appreciate your candor. Thank you for your service to our Country.

Posted by: Dave Khanoyan | April 20, 2011 9:42 AM    Report this comment

I vote for closing the tower at night at airports that have very few overnight operations. There are airports that have scheduled and charter (heavy aircraft) operations with only a CTAF. A good example is UNV. It doesn't even have radar coverage of its approaches; they are handled by NY Center, with a remote comm. Paul, you mentioned that the Cleveland Center controller who was watching a DVD while on duty needs to think about how this will play with the guy in 29B...The public has no idea how the system works. Perhaps this is left over from the PATCO days when the union had everyone convinced that anyone who ever set foot in an ATC facility was stressed to the limit every second!Would it have been okay if the controller had been reading a book, or doing a puzzle in between exchanges? I've often wondered how these guys coped with the extreme boredom during especially quiet shifts, especially while fighting inconsistant shift scheduling. I've witnessed some creativity, however. One late night years ago, I was handed off to NY tracon, from the south. After I checked in, the controller asked if he could ask me a question. He inquired as to the brand of watch I was wearing. He told me that he had a bet going with his neighbors about how many Rolexes, Omegas, etc!

Posted by: Steve Tobias | April 20, 2011 10:11 AM    Report this comment

Hey Steve... UNV is not the best example, most the airports that stay open after midnight have a much larger volume of Air Carrier and freight support aircraft. The Center works on the a one in one out principle which would create unacceptable delays for the scheduled Air Carriers, freight or passenger.

The primary consideration for leaving the tower open after ten PM or midnight is the amount of traffic particularly Air Carrier and Air Taxi flights. Not too say that politics does not come into play at some airports but that is just a fact of life.

As far as reading a book goes I would rather a controller watch TV then read a book since watching TV (or a DVD) a controller can train him/herself to scan the airport every few seconds, much more unlikely when reading a book.

As a supervisor in a tower that allowed a TV in the cab I was constantly reminding some controllers to stop watching the TV when there was traffic in the pattern.

A good controller can block out extraneous events and focus on his/her traffic as I found out when the chief (manager) of one contract facility insisted on watching the OJ trials on the cab TV at a higher volume then most of us preferred.

The rule of air traffic control is put 100% of your attention to the job with one or more aircraft in your airspace, providing you are awake.

Ray - Former PATCO member & proud of it.

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 20, 2011 11:21 AM    Report this comment

Working schedules for jobs like this have been perfected for fifty years. Ask your local professional firefighters how they cope.

Posted by: Richard Shankland | April 20, 2011 11:46 AM    Report this comment

But they get to sleep, at least until that fire call comes in at 2AM.

The answer is the FAA needs to grow some balls and tell the union they are going to offer a list of schedules after listening to the medical professionals on the best suggestions for such schedules.

FAA management in my old region fought letting anyone work a week of mid-shifts using the argument that the controller would lose his "edge". Then why was I allowed to take a months vacation and have no additional training upon returning to work?

Since most crews in the busier towers are made up of at least three controllers it would not be a problem for individual controllers to work one week of mids offset by two weeks of a day shift.

As a previous scheduler I can state that there are many ways to make it work for job and employee but the major concern can not be the total contiguous time off.


Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 20, 2011 12:14 PM    Report this comment

@Dave Khanoyan, your thanks is appreciated, although I feel a twinge of embarrassment because I equate "service to one's country" to involve wearing a uniform and possibly getting shot at.
Mr. Laughinghouse, once again your observations are right on, and you obviously draw them from more experience than I have, which makes your opinions even more valuable to me. Thanks for sharing them.

Posted by: Jason Wilson | April 20, 2011 3:50 PM    Report this comment

Ray, The reason that I mentioned UNV is because it had no tower, day or night and, contrary to what many airline consumers hold sacred, as many as 3 scheduled regional airlines, as well as heavy charter transports (teams) operated there. Pilots were on their own, sans radar coverage, and were able to negotiate the ILS down to 200 and 1/2 and make their way to the ramp without outside help! This is about to change. There is now a tower and it should be up and running shortly.
Just a bit off topic...was PATCO a "good" union? IMHO, they did a great public relations job and represented their membership very well, although it could be argued that they oversold their membership on militancy. This was all going very well until the union hierarchy underestimated the resolve of Ronald Reagan. If this whole scenario played out during the prior administration, who knows how it would have turned out!

Posted by: Steve Tobias | April 21, 2011 9:23 AM    Report this comment

Hi Steve... I agree that no organisation is "good" in the view of all persons but PATCO was good from the point of view that 81% of the working controllers at the time followed it by going on strike. The strike would not have happened if a minimum of 80% of the controllers did not vote for the strike, in fact the first vote came days earlier and fell short by one percent - no strike.

A major problem we had with Regan was a letter he sent to PATCO prior to his election when he ask for the unions support and committed to supporting our drive for improved safety and working conditions. A false commitment.

Yes, PATCO had its share of faults but overall we needed the help.

A bit off subject, please forgive.... Ray

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 21, 2011 11:09 AM    Report this comment

As an Air Traffic Controller in the UK, I read this with a sense of some astonishment. My shift pattern is two shifts from 0700-1400 followed by two from 1400-2200 and then two from 2200-0700. You have a sleepday then 3 days off, before starting again. There is a legal requirement for us to have a break every 2 hours (4 on nights) and to have at least 12 hours between shifts. For the 10 arrivals/departures that we have during the night, my company believes it appropriate to have 3 controllers covering Tower and Approach Radar. It amazes me that the FAA think differently; that 1 controller is sufficient for a nightshift and that this individual doesn't need any fatigue breaks. I hope my employer never pursues the same route.

Posted by: Alastair Campbell | April 23, 2011 12:38 PM    Report this comment

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