Friday, April 15, 2011

One Sleepy Controller

I find it fascinating that I -- a controller that has been retired for almost 5 years -- spent much of yesterday answering questions about sleeping controllers. That has given me a chance to sharpen my major points about the situation. And in that I have already addressed this subject, I thought I’d just quickly post them without elaborating (too much.)

1) There isn’t a “cure” or a “fix” for this problem. People are designed by nature to fall asleep at night. Put 50 people in 50 different rooms -- alone -- for a midnight shift and at least one of them will fall asleep. Intentionally or unintentionally. You can bet money on it.

2) Assigning two people to one control position will revert to one person on position when they decide to split the shift in half. (One works the first half while the other sleeps and then they swap.) Even if you try to manage it, history suggests that at some point in time, the situation will revert to splitting the shift. It’s human nature. Besides, you would need to assign a manager to the shift if you wanted to “manage” the situation. In other words, another body that you don’t have.

3) If there was some magical way to keep two controllers at their position and awake throughout the midnight shift, you would wind up with two exhausted controllers trying to work the morning rush. Sleep-deprived controllers aren’t anybody’s idea of safety.

4) The FAA doesn’t have the controllers available to increase staffing on the midnight shifts. The only way to increase that staffing is to assign overtime -- which increases fatigue in the workforce. In other words, the (proposed) “cure” is as bad as the “disease”.

5) The “best” way to manage the problem is to have three controllers assigned the shift. Two to man the position while the other rests. And yes, rest does mean sleeping. That isn’t going to happen -- for a multitude of social, political and financial reasons (i.e. non-safety reasons). The FAA doesn’t have the controllers to implement that strategy anyway. See #4.

6) This situation won’t be resolved. It will just fade away until some other incident brings it to the forefront again.

7) Don’t look for anybody to propose #5. The Republicans would skewer the union for proposing it and they’d treat the FAA almost as badly for “wasting” taxpayer dollars “coddling” those “overpaid, lazy government workers”.

You watch, they will take the overtime controllers will be forced to work in order to have two people on the mid shifts and use it to inflate controller’s average salaries and/or inflate the cost of how much it takes to run an FAA Tower compared to a contract Tower. When it is time to negotiate, the Republicans will use the cost of that overtime against controllers -- just like Spain did to their controllers. And when they have enough power to try and privatize the system again, they’ll use the increased costs to show how “inefficient” the government is.

Don’t think that this sleepy-controller situation isn’t a serious safety problem. It is. It just won’t be resolved because our society doesn’t like the answer to the problem.

Now, try not to interrupt my nap with all these questions, like yesterday. I fell asleep watching TV last night and my wife wasn’t happy about it. And yet, I woke up again after less than 6 hours of sleep. Rotating shifts are a “gift” that keeps on “giving” -- even after you retire. I’m one sleepy (ex)controller.

Don Brown
April 15, 2011


controller RJ said...

The one thing I cheerish most about my retirement from the FAA/ATC is a consistant sleep patern for the first time in my adult life. I used to average only 5+ hours a night during my work week, now I am making up for it.

Frank Van Haste said...

Hi, Don --

Your points are all well taken. Seems to me that the controllers' union could surprise everybody by coming out in favor of closing low-traffic towers during the wee small hours and letting the field revert to non-towered status. Might even be able to get ALPA on board.

That would reduce manning requirements and improve safety by having everyone on the same page as to situation and procedures.

See any reason that wouldn't work?



REHIRE said...

it's a rarity to see any privatized tower with more than one controller on any shift....

Dawn Forsythe said...

I understand if a controller accidently falls asleep when no planes are scheduled. My concern is when a plane needs to land. Isn't there some sort of sound system (turn up the radio transmission to "blare" maybe??) if a pilot needs to rouse the tower?

Doug said...

I don't know about you, Don, but these "sleeping controller" blogs seem to a weekly thing lately, as well as being consistently among my most-viewed blog entries.

Seems to be a lot of interest out there, all right.

Don Brown said...


I actually has the same thought as you -- for the same reason. But nothing beats having a body on location with the local knowledge that entails. I know that's supposed to just be a bonus to a controller's primary duty...but it's a nice bonus.

Don Brown

Roger D. Parish said...

If some muck-raker had discovered that there were TWO people working overnight when the traffic was minimal to non-existant, there would have been a great hue and cry throughout the land about "featherbedding" and the powers-that-be would be demanding that either the towers be closed, or the staffing reduced to one.

Don Brown said...


I was always told to put the radio speakers on stun if you felt sleepy. I can't explain how people are sleeping through a radio call. I've fallen asleep before but it hurt my conscience and my back. It's not like we have really comfortable chairs you know. :)

Don Brown

Bob said...

Hey...I wonder if sleeping on the job should be grounds to fire someone. Ooops, I forgot, they are government workers. We can't fire them. Maybe it should be turned over to the Airlines to manage. Ooops, they're unionized, that wouldn't work either. Oh, I know, how about automated, at least computers can be fired or fixed. This is all a bunch of whining, when the simple answer is accountability for not doing your job.

Kelly Ann said...

Excellent hit the nail on the head.

Don Brown said...

Steady there, Bob. You're welcome to think what you want. But this is my blog and it isn't going to turn into your blog. I'm an ex-government worker so I'll take your remarks personally.

I'll tolerate dissent. You're welcome to disagree. As a matter of fact, it helps me refine my arguments. But mind your manners.

Don Brown

Don Brown said...


Fox News has already tried to do exactly what you describe. And they didn't even wait for us to get the staffing. Thy said any call for additional staffing was just the union trying to get more members.

Always nice to hear from you.

Don Brown