Confessions of an air traffic controller (10/28/11)
Asleep in the Tower
What caused a senior air traffic controller to fall asleep at Reagen Airport in Washington, D.C. this April, causing two planes to land unassisted and provoking a national transport scandal?
Travel – his own.
In a report by Rebecca Ruiz at MSNBC, the unnamed supervisor last remembered thinking he should splash some water on his face.
He never got to it.
He was coming back from an international trip. Jet lag became added to the midnight shift that air traffic controllers were then required to do one week of over month.
He fell asleep soon after getting to work. When he heard loud voices shouting at him over the phones, he thought he had been asleep for a few minutes – but it was closer to a half hour.
And he was out cold. Even recognizing that planes had landed without his aid was not enough to quickly awaken him. He roused “out of the haze,” and it was several minutes before he began to become coherent.
The next day he went to his doctor thinking he might have had a mini-stroke. But his doctor found nothing.
He had just uncontrollably fallen asleep.
Jet Lag Squared
The human body clock is built for the 24 hour day. We did not evolve for shift work, and we did not evolve for travel across time zones.
Jet lag + new midnight shifts = jet lag squared.
Jet lag is not well understood, but work by Mike Menaker from the University of Virginia and others shows that with induced jet lag, the many different clocks in the body – they exist in each organ, and potentially in most cells – do not resynchronize rapidly nor by the same schedule. If your liver thinks it’s 2 AM, your lungs 4 AM, and your brain, seat of the main 24 hour oscillator, is sure you’re at 6 AM, things are really out of whack. Time rules life. If the clocks are out of alignment, so are you.
Now take an already jet lagged individual and get him or her to work continuous night shifts. The result – uncontrolled sleep.
And following your waking, another result is difficult to control sleep inertia. If your internal clocks are off kilter and you’re sleep deprived – and most shift workers are sleep deprived – the grogginess and slowness of sleep inertia – waking up from even one of the slightly deeper stages of sleep, like stage 2 – can hit like a freight train.
Not only will you be unable to work, you’ll be unable to recognize what you need to function.
No wonder this air traffic controller thought he had had a stroke.
What to Do With Air Traffic Control
US air transport has many problems. The computer systems are old. The sensors used in air and on the ground make for inefficient flights that cost energy and time. Fuel costs, lack of profits and multiple airport tie-ups cause airlines to turn airplanes into stuffed cattle cars that may or may not get you where you need to go – on time or any time.
On top of this, you then add the problem of shift work for air traffic controllers.
The costs of upgrading the US air traffic system to something that might have proven cutting edge at the end of the last century is at least several billion dollars. No one wants to pay that.
And though after the Reagen incident the NTSB now mandates two air traffic controllers on at night shift, sleeping on the job remains reprehensible. The present secretary of transportation, Roy LaHood, famously declared anyone sleeping on his watch would be fired.
As if sleep were a crime.
What To Do
Air service is not about to turn into a pleasant, reasonably on time experience any time soon, even if TSA sufficiently trains its personnel to treat travelers like human beings. But a little sanity about human limits might help:
- As in Europe, air traffic controllers should be allowed programmed, controlled naps so they can function better –just like the NTSB’s own studies demonstrate.
- Pilots in the cockpit should also be allowed controlled naps – as they are in much of the rest of the world.
- Technology assaying sleepiness should be evaluated in research with air traffic controllers – with the understanding that studying the issue will not cost them their jobs.
- It’s time to recognize that with a faltering economy and disappearing jobs, people are working longer hours and with less breaks.
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