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The Real Problem with Air Traffic Controllers Sleeping

I’ve been reading a lot about the problem of air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job lately, and I haven’t seen anyone address the real root cause of the problem.

What has been mentioned at length is the fact that there are periods of radio silence. In those cases, the pilots are aware of the abnormal condition. They know that there is nobody answering their calls. They take prudent action when they can’t get anyone on the radio. I may be wrong, but I suspect that the risk related to a sleeping controller is relatively low. While the air traffic controller may not be awake, the pilots on their landing approach are at their most alert, and are in communication with each other. A pilot is not going to simply land the plane if there is no contact. He or she will use protocols as if the airport is uncontrolled.

I think the real issue is not falling asleep, but the fact that our air traffic controllers are bored or tired enough to fall asleep. What concerns me more than the sleeping is the fatigue. Are the people directing traffic in the skies making the best choices? Or is their judgment impaired by the fact that they are not alert? Are they mentally drained by the nature of the work? There is a great deal of trust in air traffic controllers. If they make a mistake, there is a good chance that the pilot will not catch it. That, to me, is the real risk. Giving incorrect instructions is much harder to notice than giving no instructions.

This is a classic case of a lack of respect for people. Leaders are putting air traffic controllers into unreasonable situations. I challenge anyone to sit in an isolated room for 8 hours with only occasional human contact, all while staring at a screen intently. It doesn’t matter if you do it in the day or during the night, or if you are well-rested or not. Do it enough times, and you will nod off. And you will almost certainly have a hard time staying sharp the whole time. Now, multiply 365 by the number of airports in the country, and you’ll get tens of thousands of chances per year to have a fatigued controller landing your plane at night.

This article is not so much about proposing a solution as it is to reframe the problem. It is easy to look at the surface issue and jump to an action that treats that symptom. I suspect that doing a deep dive into the facts and data will show that the problem is not isolated to how tired a person is, but rather to a lack of mental stimulation. My concern will be that the nodding off situation will be resolved, but we will still have controllers asked to operate in an unfair situation. And that seems like an accident waiting to happen.


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