Insider Series: Are Air Traffic Controllers Asleep on the Job?

Aug 26, 2015

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TPG Contributor “Vic Vector” is an air traffic controller at a major ATC facility in the United States. In this installment of our Insider Series, he explains how controllers’ schedules work — and why you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the media.

Recently cited in an Associated Press article, a 2011 study commissioned by the FAA found that 1 out of 5 air traffic controllers had committed an operational error they attributed to fatigue, and that a third of controllers considered fatigue a serious risk to aviation safety. I don’t take issue with the study, nor do I doubt the opinions of my colleagues, but what I do find frustrating is a lack of provided context, which has led to reporting inaccuracies.

To set the record a bit more straight, here’s some background on air traffic control that I feel is missing from this controversial story.

The world’s airspace is never empty. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Aviation is a 24/7/365 business, and there are always planes flying overhead. While some smaller ATC facilities close overnight, all of the major ones are open and staffed 24 hours a day. Every controller knows when they sign on to do the job that they’ll sometimes have to work early mornings, late nights, weekends, holidays and everything in between.

Like airline pilots, controllers bid for their schedules based on seniority. The controller with the longest service time gets the first pick, and whoever’s most recently certified gets the schedule no one else wanted. Each schedule (or line as we call it) consists of two regular days off (RDOs) and five 8-hour shifts per week — though there are some facilities where controllers work four 10-hour shifts. Unlike pilots who generally bid their lines monthly, we bid ours annually.

There are positives and negatives to this process of annual bidding. For me, it’s a consistent comfort to know when I’ll be working/not working a year in advance, but if I was given a crappy schedule, I’d be saddled with it for the whole year. However, it’s important to maintain perspective, as getting the most traditionally junior RDOs — Wednesday/Thursday — means that at least you’ll have Thanksgiving off.

Schedules can be tiring for everyone in the aviation industry. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Most lines start the week with two or three night shifts, followed by two or three day shifts. For example, let’s say a controller has Monday and Tuesday off; he or she might work Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night, then Saturday and Sunday morning. The short turnaround between the Friday night shift and the Saturday day shift is what we call a “quick turn,” and by law must be at least nine hours.

For some controllers, the last day shift of their week is replaced by an overnight shift, known as the “mid.” That same controller with Monday/Tuesday off would work Wednesday and Thursday night, Friday and Saturday morning, then return late Saturday night to work overnight. The advantage there is that your weekend starts early Sunday morning and you don’t return to work until Wednesday afternoon. Personally, I find mids incredibly boring and avoid them if I can, but I know plenty of people who prefer them.

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Getting off work after the mid is a lot like stepping off a red-eye. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

There’s also the potential for overtime, which (as retirements quickly outpace hiring) is becoming more and more rampant. By law, controllers can only work six consecutive days, but there are some facilities where six-day work weeks are the norm, not the exception.

It’s easy to understand how this type of schedule might be fatiguing, though I think it’s important to note that air traffic controllers aren’t the only people subject to shift work. Medical professionals, police and firefighters all come to mind as safety-sensitive employees who also work all hours of the day. We’re adults, and all of us are trusted to be physically and mentally fit for work each day we show up; part of that is being rested enough to perform our duties. Personally, I see no difference in responsibility between showing up rested and showing up sober.

Our responsibilities extend outside our working hours. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

But we’re human — we have families and personal lives, and some days we’re more rested than others. On any given shift, regardless of the time, it’s not uncommon to see someone solicit orders for a coffee run. You might see someone grab a quick nap in their car on a break.

I can only speak for myself, but I can say with 100% certainty that I have never compromised safety because I was tired. However, I have called in sick despite being otherwise healthy because I didn’t get a good enough night’s sleep prior to my shift. If you say you’re unfit for duty, for whatever reason, no one asks questions. There’s no negative stigma associated with it, at least at my facility. This is an important part of the safety culture that the FAA has tried to create, and personally I think it’s working. We have the largest, safest and most productive national airspace system in the entire world, so we’ve gotta be doing something right.

Tens of thousands of safe operations every day aren’t a coincidence. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

I think an important part of being a professional is understanding your own abilities and limitations. Some of us function better on less sleep than others, but knowing how much sleep you actually need is vital for anyone who does shift work.

Air traffic controllers’ schedules can certainly be fatiguing, but much like the stress associated with our job, it’s just another factor we adapt to and overcome. The bottom line is this: Your flight is not in danger due to sleepy air traffic controllers.

Next time we’ll look at another recent, newsworthy event — Delta flight 1889, which was forced to divert to Denver (DEN) after an encounter with hail — and I’ll tell you why, despite what you read in the news, you have less to fear from a combination of airplanes and weather than you might think.

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