Monday, April 18, 2011

Sleepless in America

It seems that hypoxia, carbon monoxide poisoning, alcohol intoxication, and sleep deprivation all have something in common, but it's hard to explain the tough talk from Secretary of Transportation LaHood and FAA Administrator Babbitt on the subject of air traffic controllers falling asleep. Both men have said that air traffic controllers sleeping on the job is unacceptable and each has promised to get to the bottom of the problem. Some controllers who have fallen asleep have reportedly been suspended, some may face disciplinary action, and the head of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization has resigned, but there hasn't been much recognition of how the FAA's status quo, set by the folks at the very top, has helped create the problem.

The FAA has announced new duty time rules that, among other things, will ensure controllers get at least 9 hours of rest between shifts as opposed to 8 hours. While this is, in principle, a step in the right direction, it's not what experts recommend. Sleep researchers have a simple solution - allow workers to take naps during their shift. For his part, LaHood has dug in his heels and said that controllers will not be "paid to sleep." This is a curious stance.

Sleep researchers tell us that on average, Americans are getting under just 7 hours of sleep per weeknight. While there is a small percentage of the population that can function well on 5 hours or less of sleep per night, researchers believe this is a genetic trait and not a matter of adaptation. Most of us need 8 hours to function at our best and all folks those getting 7 hours of sleep go through their days with measurable decreases in ability to concentrate and reduced reaction time. The thing is, a person under the influence of sleep deprivation is likely to think that everything is just fine even though their cognitive skills are impaired.

Let's not pick on just Secretary LaHood and Administrator Babbitt because most of the country is in denial about sleep. Sleep deprivation is worn by many as a sort of badge of honor from medical residents and interns to commercial pilots. The difference would seem to be that hospitals, maritime sailors, fire departments, medivac crews, even a few international airlines allow employees to take a nap or sleep during their shifts. A pilot who flew for an air ambulance company once told me that EMS actually stands for "Earn Money Sleeping." So why should the FAA be any different if the research shows an improvement in job performance on a graveyard shift comes from simply taking a nap?

The health consequences and the associated health care costs of long-term sleep deprivation and circadian rhythm disruption are well-documented: Hypertension, weight gain, cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, increased risk of "sudden death," and shorter lifespan. My personal experience? Four days after I quit my freight-flying job I woke up feeling great, but with the sobering realization that I had been impaired by sleep disruption for months without fully realizing it.

As Phil Zimbardo once observed, you'll never get to the bottom of a dysfunctional organization unless you first go to the top. There may be an explanation for the loss of objectivity when someone is short on sleep, but it's hard to support LaHood's hard-line stance against napping. The Roman Empire's punishment for sleeping on duty may have been death, but we live in more informed, and scientifically enlightened times. Perhaps Secretary LaHood should sit down, read the research, and sleep on it.


JetAviator7 said...

A curiuos stance by LaHood re: sleeping on the job. This 1 hour change will have little effect on the real problem: sleep deprivation.

We need better thinking at the top. Why not close these rarely used airport towers during the deep night. We pilots can figure out how to land without hand holding!



Douglas said...

With the Government's continued investment in NextGen, including technologies such as ADS-B and surface management systems, it seems like FAA could regionalize Air Traffic Control Towers, perhaps even at the already regionalized TRACONs, overnight when there are significantly fewer operations, while achieving the same or similar level of safety. This "regionalization" / consolidation of Towers overnight would allow for improved management and oversight of staff, reduce the number of controllers required, and possibly allow for some nap time (I can see how it would be hard to allow for naps with 1 or 2 controllers per Tower at any time overnight).

John Ewing said...

NextGen to the rescue!

I've experienced something similar to your concept of "regionalized" tower/ground/approach facilities when I flew in the Caribbean. It was pretty spooky, especially at airports that had no parallel taxiways, where aircraft were required to back-track on the runway and turn around for takeoff.

In point of fact, it's not hard for controllers to nap while on duty. It's happening now. The problem is that these naps are not a planned or sanctioned event.

The idea that technology alone will solve FAA staffing woes seems dubious. Time will tell ...

Kevin said...

The additional one hour time requirement between shifts (from 8 to 9 hours) will make little difference if any for most of us. I work the 2-2-1 schedule they're referring to that is part of the problem. In my 29 years of doing this I've only ever been able to manage 3 hours of sleep on the day of my double shift which ends my work-week. Requiring me to wait an additional hour before coming to work serves no useful purpose whatsoever for me.

We all know that sleeping on positon is forbidden; it goes without saying. Some facilities are woefully understaffed and controllers are overworked. It seems to me there may be a correlation between the imposed work-rule days of a few years ago under the Bush administration where we lost large numbers of veteran controllers and a now overstrained workforce left to hold it all together. But you know...our management ranks have never been fatter.

Lyman said...

switching from day to night schedule frequently is very disruptive. you cannot force yourself to sleep off-schedule right away, and are bound to be fatigued during the first few days of transition. if the faa keeps night people regularly on night shift, they will have alert staff on all shifts, even quiet nighttime periods. this is a scheduling issue in my opinion.