Air traffic controllers need more sleep, not longer shifts

Last month, an air traffic controller at Reagan National Airport fell asleep as two planes landed on the runway. Although no one was injured, the Federal Aviation Administration flew into a rage. They released press statements saying that air traffic controllers falling asleep was “unacceptable behavior.”

While I understand the massive concern that people watching our skies could be abdicating their duties to catch up on sleep, I think we’re missing the bigger issue. These employees are working odd schedules and may not be able to gain an adequate amount of sleep.

The profession is considered one of the most stressful jobs on the planet, according to an article in TIME.

“My daily routine is dealing with aircrafts that have anywhere between 200 and 400 people on board, and that are traveling at about 600 miles an hour,” 22-year-old controller veteran Melvin S. Davis said in the article. “They all have an objective  to get the airplane on the ground as quickly as possible. And I have to be the traffic cop.”

Studies show that air traffic controllers die years younger than their counterparts who have chosen different careers. Under the immense amount of pressure these employees endure at work, it is hard to fathom that they can be completely relaxed ,even when off the clock.

These employees remain stressed, which can interrupt the ability to sleep and even reduce the amount of R.E.M. sleep that they can experience in a given night, according to The Franklin Institute Center for Innovation and Science Learning says.

Also, the FAA fails to recognize that these employees also have other responsibilities outside of work.

Even if they work a night shift, they are still forced to wake up in the morning like people who work regular schedules to do things like grocery shopping, paying bills and picking up children from school.

They do not always get the luxury of sleeping for 10 hours after a high-maintenance shift that requires hours of unbroken focus.

So how do we solve this problem?

The answers are simple, but their implementation is more complicated. Employees need a more normal and regulated schedule. They need to have more certainty of routine in their lives so that they can reset their internal clock and adequately recover before returning to work.

If employees were able to rest before returning to work, they would be more alert and more able to handle the immense amount of stress that comes with ensuring that commercial airplanes filled with passengers are landing safely every time.

Another component that would help improve the alertness of these employees is to use the buddy-system. Although this method has been implemented in the past, many airports recently returned to using only one person, which baffles me. Leaving one person to watch planes come in is simply asking for disaster. If there are two or more controllers together, they will greatly reduce the risk of something detrimental happening.

The Federal Aviation Administration should work more diligently to make sure that their employees are not being overworked because their jobs are so labor intensive. The FAA can certainly take more productive steps to secure the safety of our skies and air traffic controllers than just firing those who have made a mistake. Let’s work to improve the system, rather than reinforce it with new employees.