WASHINGTON — The best solution to the problem of sleepy air traffic controllers is more sleeping on the job, scientists say.
But that would be a radical change for the Federal Aviation Administration. Current regulations forbid sleeping at work, even during breaks. Controllers who are caught can be suspended or fired.
Experts say that kind of thinking is outdated.
“There should be sanctioned on-shift napping. That’s the way to handle night shift work,” said Gregory Belenky, a sleep expert at Washington State University in Spokane. There are plenty of other scientists in the U.S. and around the world who agree with him. Sleep studies show that nighttime workers who are allowed “recuperative breaks” are more alert when they return to their tasks.
A working group on controller fatigue made up of officials from the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents controllers, recently embraced that position as well.
The issue has taken on a new urgency in the wake of four recent episodes in which the FAA says controllers fell asleep while on duty.
Administration officials have scrambled to assure the public and angry members of Congress that air travel is indeed safe. Even President Barack Obama weighed in, telling ABC News in an interview, “We’ve got it under control,” and warning controllers they must stay alert and do their jobs.