Why do air traffic controllers and pilots fall asleep?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported yet another air traffic controller who fell asleep for about five hours during his shift. Air traffic controllers work in pairs, one handling incoming flights, and one working the radar. According to the article, while the controller who was supposed to be handling the incoming flights was sleeping, the other controller working in the tower in Knoxville, landed planes and worked the radar position at the same time. The FAA does not allow one person to do multiple jobs at the same time; this man was forced to do so as his colleague slept because he was too tired to stay awake.

This is only the latest in sleep deprivation and fatigue-related incidents for the airline industry. Remember the incident where two Northwest Airlines pilots fell asleep in the cockpit and overshot their destination by 150 miles? Pilots, traffic controllers on the ground: these are people we rely on for our safety when we fly.

The FAA suspended the controller who fell asleep on the job and continues to try to enforce rules about safely working midnight shifts. My big question is:

Was this really the controller’s fault?

It sounds like in many cases, the air traffic controllers are being asked to work back to back shifts, and in some cases multiple days at a time. This is INSANE, it is a miracle we have not had more issues. And while I agree that no one should be working such a late shift by themselves, air traffic controllers, pilots, and anyone with responsibility late at night or after long days should also consider:
  • Taking naps earlier in the day before their shift
  • Avoiding using caffeine as a way to stay awake, unless for use in the short term only
  • Having a set sleep routine during both their work week and time off
After those pilots missed Minneapolis by 150 miles, the FAA rewrote its rules that govern flight time for pilots and their require rest periods in order to reduce the chances of fatigue. Hopefully they will also do so for the air traffic controllers on the ground.

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