Politics

Despite Sudden Action, Feds Have Long Known of Sleepy Air Traffic Controllers

There is growing evidence that the FAA has known about the threat of sleeping air traffic controllers for decades.

The agency commissioned a study as far back as the 1970s on fatigue among controllers. More recently, in 1997, the publication, "Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine," concluded there was a likelihood controllers were, indeed, falling asleep on the job.

"There is evidence that ATC's may be falling asleep while on duty. Performance declines on the night shift,” the publication found. “On the night shift, ATC's often have little active work to do as they sit in the dark with an acute sleep debt, at the nadir of their circadian rhythms."

But if government transportation authorities were aware of the risks cited in that study fourteen years ago, they've done little to minimize those risks in subsequent years.

Some experts suggest that scheduling -- agreed to by unionized controllers and FAA managers -- plays no small part in the problem. Many controllers prefer schedules that give them as many as three days off in a row, but pack the remaining part of their work week with grueling hours that tax the body and mind.

Six of seven controllers interviewed recently by the Associated Press admitted briefly falling asleep during late night shifts. Others working shifts with one co-worker admitted trading off, while one slept and the other worked, even though FAA regulations forbid any sleeping even during breaks.

Meanwhile, the incidents of five sleeping controllers in recent weeks have pushed the Obama administration into action. On Friday, the president tried to ease the nations concerns, telling ABC's Good Morning America, "We've got it under control."

But he admitted, "The fact is when you're responsible for the lives and safety of people up in the air, you better do your job."

To that end, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promised on Friday "zero tolerance" for controllers sleeping on the job, even if it means doubling the staffing, and resultant costs at more than 20 of the nation’s airports presently served by only one controller during the midnight shift.

"Look, we're not going to let money compromise safety," LaHood said. "If safety is our No. 1 priority, if it takes more controllers to get to the kind of zero tolerance that we want, that's what we will do. We will always find the money to make sure that safety is the number one priority for the flying public."

But as with nearly all things in Washington, the staffing issue at a time of intense budgetary pressures, has become highly political.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, suggests it's a mammoth waste of taxpayer dollars to staff overnight shifts with two people, when some of those airports in question see only two or three flights at those hours.

"It’s hard to believe but I guess the only place this could occur is in federal government when you're not doing your job," Mica said. "They hire a $163,000 a-year employee to help you do your job. There's something wrong with that."

Experts in sleep disorders suggest that politicized solutions may do nothing to correct the problem unless government officials take an honest look at air traffic controllers' schedules, and the resultant effects that sleep deprivation has on mind and body.

As unsavory as napping during breaks may seem, it may help controllers get through long, lonely nights, and help save the government from further embarrassment and passengers from greater risk.

Doug McKelway joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in November 2010 and serves as a Washington-based correspondent. Click here for more information on Doug McKelway