The government said Sunday that it is giving air traffic controllers an extra hour off between shifts so they don't doze off at work, a problem that stretches back decades. But officials rejected the one remedy that sleep experts say would make a real difference: on-the-job napping.
"On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps. We're not going to allow that," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.
That's exactly the opposite of what scientists and the Federal Aviation Administration's own fatigue working group say is needed after five cases disclosed since late March of sleeping controllers. The latest one occurred just before 5 a.m. Saturday at a busy regional radar facility that handles high-altitude air traffic for much of Florida, portions of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
Several other countries, including Germany and Japan, permit controllers to take sleeping breaks, and they provide quiet rooms with cots for that purpose.
"Given the body of scientific evidence, that decision clearly demonstrates that politics remain more important than public safety," said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation of Alexandria, Va. "People are concerned about a political backlash if they allow controllers to have rest periods in their work shifts the same way firefighters and trauma physicians do."
It has been an open secret in the FAA dating from at least the early 1990s that controllers sometimes sleep on the job. Toughest are overnight shifts, which usually begin at about 10 p.m. and end at about 6 a.m.
Scientists say that it would be surprising if controllers didn't doze sometimes because they are trying to stay awake during the time of day when the body naturally craves sleep.
Studies show that 30 to 50 percent of night-shift workers report falling asleep at least once a week while on the job, according to Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, chief of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
About 6 in 8 present and former controllers interviewed by the Associated Press acknowledged that they briefly fell asleep while working alone at night at least once in their careers. Most of the controllers asked not to be identified because they didn't want to jeopardize their jobs or the jobs of colleagues.
Much more common is taking a nap on purpose, they said. On midnight shifts, one controller will work two positions, while the other one sleeps and then they switch off, controllers said. The unsanctioned arrangements sometimes allow controllers to sleep as much as three or four hours out of an eight-hour shift, they said.
The FAA does not allow controllers to sleep at work, even during breaks. Controllers who are caught can be suspended or fired. But at many air traffic facilities, the sleeping swaps are tolerated as long as they don't affect safety, controllers said.
"It has always been a problem," said former controller Rick Perl, who retired last year.