OK, My Turn

It’s my turn now, to talk about the napping controllers. This is mainly for the benefit of the non-flying public; most of us who fly realize pilots and passengers face little danger in the case of sleeping controllers at 1 a.m. or 5 a.m. The only time it comes to question is when the controller falls asleep during high-density traffic operations in the middle of the day. I have never heard of that happening, though. Too many others around to let you sleep.

The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) nailed it right on the head in one of their e-newsletters last Thursday. Under the headline, “Are We Pilots Or Wimps?” J. Mac McClellan leads off by saying, “Controllers asleep on the job is a fiasco for the FAA that is growing worse daily. But I am afraid that in the nonstop news coverage of the ATC system failures, we pilots have come off more as wimps than pilots in command of their own airplanes.”

The problem, as it is oftentimes with the media, is the publicizing of a problem that is not really a problem. However, it is a great way to sell newspapers and airtime through sensationalism to a public ignorant or uneducated about a subject.

The non-flying public does not realize that of the more than 11,000 airports in the country, less than five percent fall under the purview of ATC controllers. Of those, very few are open 24 hours a day. Amazingly, we still fly and operate off those airports after hours—all without the adult supervision of an Air Traffic Controller!

Oh, the humanity!

Each time I hear of another media outlet crying about sleeping controllers, I wonder how I ever learned how to fly. The airplanes I learned to fly in lacked electrical systems, radios, navigation equipment, lights, batteries, and starters. They must have been really dangerous airplanes and by virtue of my survival during that dangerous period, I must be some kind pilot extraordinaire—NOT!

Controllers have their place. During times of bad weather or in areas of congested air traffic, yes, we need controllers. But at two in the morning, a napping controller is not a dangerous thing. The real crime is not the napping controller; it is the punitive action being taken against a human being forced to work outside his or her natural circadian rhythm. Of course, anyone in this situation is going to be tired and may inadvertently fall asleep.

The FAA needs to revamp how they schedule controllers’ work periods. Managers do not need to resign from their positions and controllers should not lose their jobs. Pilots can still land and fly airplanes safely without talking to controllers.

And most importantly, the public needs to realize it is not the dangerous situation newspaper publishers and the talking heads on TV are making it out to be.  


© 2011 J. Clark

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6 Responses to OK, My Turn

  1. It would seem that AC’s would need to be at maximum alertness every moment of a shift, naturally, but I would think that very draining. With planes delayed and lined up to takeoff and other complication the stress would seem very depleting . I don’t know how they can perform at the level continuously.

    • Joe Clark says:

      Carl, they are alert. They are the finest in the world and when they are on, they are pretty well on. Their job, as with any other, has peak periods and lows. The problem is their natural sleep cycle. When you are forced to work when your body is normally asleep, it is very easy to “nod off,” which is a far cry from “sleeping on the job.”

  2. Chris Pyle says:

    Good response Joe. Over in Europe, they have, “quiet rooms” for controllers. It’s really comforting to know the media is grandstanding on such an issue. Hhmm.. Let’s see. I still have not seen anything yet, except studies, about allowing flight crew to take catnaps. Far be it from me, to say that on our 18 hour days, I would have loved to have taken a 10 minute power nap. But, alas, I can see someone turning me into the feds… Happy Easter my friend….

  3. Doug says:

    Let’s not forget that we as pilots have the FINAL say in the operation of our aircraft. Controllers are great and very professional, but they don’t see everything that we see in the cockpit. Remember the Hudson landing? Listen to the ATC tapes and you’ll hear an air AND ground team working together to resolve the situation, but the final say has to t be the pilot’s. (No offense meant towards controllers at all – I appreciate them immensely) Look on the positive side also, we learn from these situations. That’s why I, as a pilot, read about incidents/accidents etc. No panic here. Also, you have to empathy for the stresses that controllers face. They give it their best, but I’m sure at times they feel helpless when some emergencies occur. Give em a break… literally.

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