FAA on Fatigue: Still No Naps

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You have to wonder what it's going to take to drag the FAA into the 21st century with regard to what might best be called fatigue management. Last week, it announced a new agreement with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to address fatigue issue on all shifts, but especially the mid-shift, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The FAA now says if controllers are too tired to work, they can use annual leave or sick days and skip the shift, they can listen to commercial radio or read to stay awake but—major oversight here—they can't take catnaps even when on break. In a way, this a tantamount to denying the weight of 250,000 years of evolution for the sake of…well, I'm not sure. It also flies in the face of virtually all contemporary research on fatigue, which reveals that short naps are the best way to restore alertness for people whose circadian rhythm has been disrupted by a wholly unnatural night shift.

Commenting on the FAA's announcement Friday, former NTSB member John Goglia, who's on the FAA's fatigue advisory committee, said the FAA policy lags far behind accepted understanding of fatigue causes and solutions. Ironically, he says, the FAA's own studies confirm other research on the subject and the agency possesses more than enough data to support an enlightened approach to mid-shift fatigue. Yet it refuses to go there.

Why? Ostensibly, it's politics, although if there's some other over arching reason, the FAA hasn't said nor has anyone offered intelligent speculation. The outside-looking-in view assumes that SecDOT Ray LaHood doesn't want to find himself in front a congressional sub-committee trying to answer why he's allowing highly paid government employees to sleep on the job. Or maybe he's really standing on principle here. Maybe he really believes that it's just wrong and a mark against professionalism to allow controllers a snooze break. If that's the case, he's utterly oblivious to overwhelming research on the topic, some done by his own agency. If politics are really driving it, it's just another example of the broken political system in this country slowly driving us toward ruin.

Either way, the result will be the same: More stories about sleeping controllers, more firings and maybe a hotter political potato than if the agency had just authorized naps in the first place.

Comments (29)

I recently retired after 38 years of shift work in British ATC. Working through every hour of the day over several days is cumulatively very tiring. Tiredness leads to errors, which of course are not a good thing in the field of ATC. In the UK we do have the ability to arrange brief sleep breaks during the quiet times over a night shift. This is only sensible, since the end of a night shift typically involves busiest traffic levels. I would ask how many FAA administrators wake up 10 or even 12 hours before they go to work and remember that is when most people are ready for bed? My long experience is that it is well nigh impossible to sleep during the day when the rest of the world is awake and making noise!

Posted by: Bryan Brough | July 4, 2011 4:28 AM    Report this comment

I feel there are a number of problems related to fatigue in both ATC and airline crew management that need to be addressed.

The union contracts, with their one size fits all paradigm, insist that rotating shifts be used to make all workers suffer in a similar fashion. I think it is the use of rotating shifts that leads to the extreme fatigue that makes incredibly overpaid government workers want to sleep on the job. If each worker could make his own decisions about work schedules then a permanent night shift could be "Hired". This would allow these controllers to adjust their lives so working the night shift would not be such a burden. Under the current situation the only way to make the fatigue tolerable is by careful scheduling so the "Laborers" can adjust their sleep cycles to match their work cycles.

I feel the bending of old rules to allow sleepy controllers to read or listen to the radio is a step in the right direction. I'm sure they could also do some exercise or take other steps to try to stay alert. Perhaps more concessions are needed, but at least there is movement to come to a workable agreement. This is better than the "Imposed" work rules that came from the last FAA administrator when union negotiations got out of hand.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | July 4, 2011 6:19 AM    Report this comment

Good point Bryan. My cardiologist suggested I take a wake maintenance test. I was wired up with sensors to monitor status and sat completely still in a darkened room (like an ATC Center)for 50 minutes. It was hard to stay alert in conditions like that and this was done after a full night's rest.

Posted by: John McGlynn | July 4, 2011 6:26 AM    Report this comment

I retired after 35 years at ZID as a controller and first line supervisor. I don't recall ever seeing a controller asleep on position. We did nap during breaks and I thought that helpful. The latest FAA/Union agreement to provide the 9 hour time between shifts is to give controllers one hour administrative leave at the end of the shift preceding the mid-shift. That's 52 hours paid leave in addition to the four weeks they already have. Is that a great job or what?

Posted by: Charles Spayd | July 4, 2011 6:53 AM    Report this comment

As a retired air traffic controller who worked 30+years of mid-shifts, I still wonder why the FAA remains in their own self induced "sleep" over this issue and can't face up to the simple fact that people just get more naturally tired during the middle of the night. We were always told that the FAA didn't want to have to explain to congress and the general public why these "highly" paid controllers would be allowed to sleep on the job. What's to explain? My argument was that they would not be sleeping on the job, they would be napping during their own break time. Does it make any difference to anyone if the controller, on his own break time, is watching TV or reading, eating a meal, surfing the net or taking a short nap as long as he or she returns on time and ready to work and while on break be subject to immediate recall if an emergency arises and the working controller needs help. I'd rather explain that to congress and the general public than why I(the FAA) favored and strictly enforced a policy that not only allowed but mandated that an exhausted controller remain in position, with the real chance that he subsequently nod of while ON DUTY and possibly cause or fail to prevent an aircraft accident!! Even in the military, in combat situations, you post a sentry, while the rest of the unit takes a break and rests and dare I even say it....sleeps!!!

Posted by: James Dippel | July 4, 2011 7:30 AM    Report this comment

Jim Dippel .... well stated.

Posted by: Jim Vroom | July 4, 2011 7:55 AM    Report this comment

Well I guess we can stop spending all that money on sleep and fatigue research, FAA knows best or does it?

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | July 4, 2011 9:26 AM    Report this comment

Retired ATC.

What the hell does "highly paid" and sleep have in common? Why is controllers pay even mentioned in these articles and comments. Do highly paid and minimum wage employees have different sleep requirements? Are highly paid employees built differently?
In casinos, security personell monitor banks of tv monitors all day an night. What do they do to keep awake at 3,4,5,am when activity is at a minimum.
Long haul airline pilots are expected to sleep while getting paid. As a matter of fact the airlines staff the cockpit so crews can rotate through the sleepling bunk ( ATC staffing is a another whole rant).
One of the things that chapped my a** when I was working was the EXACT 8 hour time frame bewteen between getting off one shift and coming back for the next. This happened twice a working week. Once when getting off a swing shift and returning for a day shift and then again when getting off a day shift and returning for the mid. There was NO consideration for commute time, family responsibilities, etc., circadian rythum be damned. You were expected to go home and sleep (no matter what time of the day) so you could return to work "rested". I would challenge any FAA Washington administrator to follow such a shift for a month. First hand knowledge MAY wake them up as to the idiocy of their mandates.

Posted by: REUVEN SILBERMAN | July 4, 2011 10:28 AM    Report this comment

This is hilarious! I've already commented on the sleep issue on a previous blog by Mr. Bertorelli, so I won't go back to that. I will just say that a nap on break is a great thing for controllers. But what's funny is the "compromise". By them giving the radio back as a compromise is like a boss of an office telling their employees that effective immediately there will be no more chairs. Everyone grumbles about it, but finds a way to work around the issue. Maybe even sneaking-in a chair to sit on, when the boss isn't around. Then, the public finds out that these office workers' legs are getting very tired and it's causing problems, and demanding that this boss do something about it. So, he "compromises" and gives the chairs back. Really?! The radios shouldn't have ever left the control environment in the first place, as long as they weren't distracting.

Posted by: David Borger | July 4, 2011 10:33 AM    Report this comment

Wow such emotions.

Gentlemen and ladies, you are all responding to a government buracracy. They don't care about your research on sleep, or your circadian clock. All they care about is the continuation of the buracracy.

Don't you get it? Buracracies first mandate is to keep the agency going, no matter what its original function. Once its established, it's real function is now to keep collecting tax money so the administrators can continue to issue stupid decisions. eg, no sleeping on the job for ATC , and live a lavish lifestyle.

All buracracies wether, Military, Corporations, or Governments strive to get bigger, more intrusive, and more powerful whenever possible. Taxpayers be dammed. Those that these bureaus are supposed to serve become slaves to them. eg.,Look at the ridiculous security checks, little ol ladies, have to submit to when going thru security. Or better yet, when April 15 rolls around what hoops did you have to go thru to complete your tax's?

The inflexibility is rampant. The incompetence is complete and you, the taxpayer, allow it to continue.

One other thing. the head of the FAA is an appointed position. Who appointed this Bozo? Yep, its time to remove the had of the FAA. That's a change I can believe in!

But it'll never happen because the voters won't demand it. They don't understand the relationship between more government, higher tax's, bad administrators, and their elected officials.

Posted by: Carter Boswell | July 4, 2011 10:57 AM    Report this comment

Humans shouldn't be doing anything computers can do better. Why isn't the whole system automated like a high speed rail system?

Posted by: TOM PADDON HOLDINGS LLC | July 4, 2011 11:01 AM    Report this comment

I didn't have room in my last post but the most recent, and most damming example of a buracracy gone wild is the FCC's debacle regarding LightSquared. Here is an agency, under pressure by the President, to permit testing of a communication system that will do irreparable harm to EVERY US Citizen. Perfect!

Posted by: Carter Boswell | July 4, 2011 11:26 AM    Report this comment

Thomas... Perhaps when all the aircraft are automated they can automate ATC, but with each pilot trying to figure out how to be first it is very difficult to automate anything. The computers are a great help in acting as an assistant to the controller not to mention acting as a snitch.

Some day, but we are not ready yet for the computers to take over.

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | July 4, 2011 11:57 AM    Report this comment


There have been a number of attempts to automate portions of NAS operations. They generally cost a lot more than promised and do a lot less. This is just another version of government incompetence.

The latest big program, NextGen, will probably also turn into a failure. For now that is not a big issue because congress is even more incompetent than the FAA and hasn't managed to pass an FAA budget for many years. Until congress gets its act together and funds the FAA conversion to NextGen we will have to live with the current system.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | July 4, 2011 11:59 AM    Report this comment

"Pay no attention to the elephant in the room" is what they are saying. We need a much better solution than allowing the reading of "appropriate" material. I know nothing puts me to sleep faster than reading while I'm almost asleep anyway.

Posted by: STAN TEW | July 4, 2011 12:48 PM    Report this comment

"they can listen to commercial radio or read to stay awake..."

Let's hope none of those controllers decide to read FAA Order 8260.3B, U.S. Standard for Terminal Instrument Procedures (TERPS). The TERPS manual usually puts me to sleep within 2-3 pages.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | July 4, 2011 1:10 PM    Report this comment

To those who have no idea about how working three different shifts can affect your mental and physical body functions, take a one week vacation so you'll be able to do this experiment: Over that one week period do this schedule: stay up all night, not cheating by taking naps. Go to bed at 08:00. At 16:00 begin staying awake until Midnight. Go to bed. Awaken at 08:00 and remain awake until 16:00, go to bed. Awaken at Midnight and remain wake until 08:00. Take a full day off returning for the Midnight shift. Repeat this schedule for the entire week, and then you tell me if you're mentally alert and not sleepy all the time? I worked this crazy shift in Law Enforcement for a year. After a few weeks, your body doesn't know if you should eating, sleeping, or sitting on the pot. The ATC people have a similar shift schedule. Try staying awake at night on that crazy schedule?

Posted by: Douglas Rodrigues | July 4, 2011 1:11 PM    Report this comment

We will see if enough employees can be found to fit the rules. I think napping while ON BREAK is OK. Pilots have sleep rooms at some stations. Arnie Allison

Posted by: Arnold Allison | July 4, 2011 4:41 PM    Report this comment

I'm not sure if JJ Glennon's reply had anything to do with the topic. I think we talking about the sleeping issue and being safely alert.

Posted by: David Borger | July 4, 2011 7:42 PM    Report this comment

Reading to stay awake would work exactly the opposite for me and several others I know; in fact, if I wake in the wee hours, I can read for an hour or less when my eyes slam shut or flop about in bed till the sun comes up. National Geographic, Inc., Flying; doesn't matter. In the corporate world, a CEO would have to have some very unique answers for the board of directors when they questioned a situation like this.

Posted by: Dan Fregin | July 4, 2011 10:05 PM    Report this comment

I think JJ Glennon's info implies that there is enough "off-board" time to support some nap time.

It also seems that the NATCA has considerable clout in determining work schedules and staffing. It seems logical to me that such clout could be used to push for 'naps' if they so desired.

Yes, I know politics are in the way....

Posted by: Edd Weninger | July 5, 2011 1:30 PM    Report this comment

Worked at LAX Tower 6 years ( 7-81) and slept every midshift. Supervisor in his sleepingbag on the floor at 1 am, one controller on the couch in the breakroom until 3:30 am, then the second controller on the couch till 6 am. Any issues and you kick the Sup on the floor. Never an incident in all those years. There is ONLY one solution for feeling sleepy...SLEEP!!! When this issue is forgotten, controllers will again do what is safest for their careers and nap as needed while the FAA is off on another tangent.

Posted by: Derk Kuypers | July 6, 2011 10:36 AM    Report this comment

I feel sorry for controllers working rotating shifts. During the 41 years I lived in Greensboro,NC, I worried about the affects of that on the police officers who had to make life and death decisions in a split second while being sleep deprived.

Posted by: John Worsley | July 6, 2011 9:11 PM    Report this comment

I feel sorry for controllers working rotating shifts. During the 41 years I lived in Greensboro,NC, I worried about the affects of that on the police officers who had to make life and death decisions in a split second while being sleep deprived.

Posted by: John Worsley | July 6, 2011 9:11 PM    Report this comment

Douglas Rodriguez said, "To those who have no idea about how working three different shifts can affect your mental and physical body functions... After a few weeks, your body doesn't know if you should eating, sleeping, or sitting on the pot."


I don't doubt that working alternating shifts has a tremendous adverse effect on your body's sleep schedule. But that only begs the question of why do it then? If it's such a "crazy schedule" why do supervisors and employees continue to put up with it?

There would at lest be some consistency if controllers, police, and fireman, were to work the same shift for several weeks before rotating into another shift.

Perhaps the FAA needs to look no further than how they rotate controllers through their shifts.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | July 6, 2011 11:01 PM    Report this comment

Hey Gary... When I was in the FAA, left in 1981, most young controllers really liked this shift since on their Friday they get off at 7 or 8 AM and did not return until their Monday at 4 PM, almost a four day weekend every week or at least until you shifted days off and paid the piper.

When alternate schedules were suggested to FAA management one of their primary arguments was that working a week or more of mid-shifts would cause a controller to lose the competency although it seems a two or three week vacation did not.

A number of us at my facility presented suggested schedules only to be rejected by the FAA management. Remember any schedule must also pass the Fair Labor Standers Act (FLSA) requirements.

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | July 7, 2011 8:58 AM    Report this comment

"Remember any schedule must also pass the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requirements."


Thanks for your input. Do FLSA and union rules apply even when wacky shift rotation schedules seriously mess with natural body rhythms, and lead to air traffic controllers, police, and fire fighters not being at the top of their games because their established sleep patterns have been knocked out of kilter?

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | July 7, 2011 10:15 AM    Report this comment

Gary... The main problem with the FLSA is ensuring you do not require unpaid overtime.

I joined the FAA in 1969 and we were expected to report in fifteen minutes before our eight hour shift started, then one day someone discovered the FLSA and the FAA published they would pay overtime for anything over six minutes.

This is a completely new Union so I can't be sure but I'll bet after all the write-ups they are willing to negotiate.

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | July 7, 2011 4:32 PM    Report this comment

Fellow pilots ... I popped out of medical school in 1970 and entered an internship requiring me to work 5.5 days and 3.5 nights weekly ... in other words, every other night I had no sleep. Did that create problems ... you bet ... but then teaching hospitals recognized there was a way around this ... hiring interns to work just at night ... folks who liked that ... and there are such people. And they would do so long enough ... a month or two ... that their biologic systems would adjust. Why exactly can't we be equally practical with controllers ... they're human ... let's be realistic ... listening to the radio, taking naps ... give me a break! Let's do the right thing here for our controllers ... they're our friends and colleagues.

Posted by: PAUL LARSEN | July 17, 2011 7:25 PM    Report this comment

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