NTSB member: Permitting controllers to nap would increase air traffic safety

A member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said Monday that science, and not appearances, should guide federal officials' reactions to the spate of air traffic controllers who have been caught napping on the job.
 
"If you don't think you have a problem, you're not going to do anything to solve it," NTSB member Mark Rosekind said in a conference call Monday. "Over 90 different sleep disorders exist, so on any given day, one-third of the population is going to have one."
 

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There have been several incidents over the past few weeks involving air traffic controllers either sleeping on the job or not being responsive to airplanes attempting to land. Transportation officials have responded by adding an hour to the length of time between shifts and ending single-person overnight shifts, but they have not embraced the supervised nap proposal.

Rosekind acknowledged it might be politically difficult for the federal government to allow air traffic controllers to take naps on the job, which several sleep experts have proposed, but he said research proves it would reduce fatigue in flight towers. 

"I go with the science," Rosekind said. "We have many documented instances of spontaneous, uncontrolled sleeping."
 
The problem of air traffic controllers being tired on the job is not new; Rosekind said the NTSB has made recommendations for dealing with fatigue since 1981. But it has been vehemently dismissed by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other officials who want to show they are reacting to the recent incidents forcefully.
 
"We're not going to sit by and let that kind of behavior take place in control towers," LaHood said last week in an interview, referring to a controller in Miami who was fired after bringing pillows and a blanket to work to take a nap.
 
However, the head of the air traffic controllers union said over the weekend that the proposal should be given serious consideration.
 
"There is nothing groundbreaking about these recommendations," National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement. "They are common sense solutions to a problem NATCA and fatigue experts have consistently raised for years while past Administrations turned a blind eye.
 
"The recommendations are based on advice from NASA and the military and in line with international air traffic control best practices," Rinaldi continued. "If we are serious about addressing controller fatigue, then every recommendation must be adopted and implemented."
 
NTSB member Rosekind agreed Monday. He said fatigue issues present risks in all forms of transportation, although incidents involving airplanes tend to get the most attention.
 
"This has been going on for a long time," Rosekind said. "You can go back to Casey Jones and Charles Lindbergh, if you want.
 
"If you don't have a fatigue management plan and you just throw more people at it, you're just going to have more tired people," he said.

This article was corrected from an earlier version April 26 at 10:27 a.m.

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