There’s not a lot of air traffic at night. So some air traffic control towers close altogether.  Any landing aircraft is on its own.  Other air traffic control towers are staffed with just one controller.  Not surprisingly, lone controllers working the night shift tend to doze off. 

That little secret is now out. That led to the resignation of the head of the Air Traffic Organization. Hon. Mark R. Rosekind And then, just yesterday, the FAA announced that a second controller will be added to the overnight shift at 27 airports

Sounds like moves in the right direction. But what do you get when you put a second controller into a dark, quiet control tower in the middle of the night? 

Two sleeping air traffic controllers.

It’s not a matter of just adding staff.  It’s a matter of dealing with the somewhat complicated issue of how night shifts disrupt a workers’ circadian rhythms. At least so says Dr. Mark R. Rosekind, the newest member of the the National Transportation Safety Board. 

I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Rosekind speak a couple of weeks ago at Menlo High School in Atherton, California. Dr. Rosekind is one smart guy.  And he happens to be a sleep expert. In fact, Dr. Rosekind was the Director of the Center for Human Sleep Research at Stanford University. So he knows a thing or two about "fatigue management." 

Unfortunately, the FAA isn’t required to listen to the NTSB, and frequently doesn’t.  In the past, when it comes to fatigue risk management, an act of congress was required to get the FAA to do something.

Not to worry.  This time the FAA, or at least the US Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, is on top of it.  He is outraged.  LaHood says he "will not sleep" until there’s good safety in the control towers.  (Yes, he really said that.)

  • Cloudesley Shovell

    Perhaps a common sense amendment to the regs to permit airports at the base of class B airspace to go uncontrolled, or to permit “own risk” landing clearances to be issued by approach.

    But the gov’t loves to solve problems by throwing money at them, so it’s no surprise that they immediately pursued such a resolution, regardless of its effectiveness. Plus, it means more union jobs.

  • N Bowie

    A air traffic controllers schedule is a rotation of shifts from my understanding. I am a crew member who also can have rotatating shifts with a minimum of 8hrs rest between flights. I agree that our circadian rhythms become seriously messed up. I am often fatigued myself due to the schedules and time zone changes required, so I can relate. A new bill was passed for increasing a pilots rest (not finalized yet), flight attendants are still fighting for increased rest and it looks like it also needs to be changed/mandated for the ATC guys. If not increased rest, then look at giving them a straight day,swing or graveyard shift with more breaks. It is imperative for everyone to be well rested and alert in the event there is a emergency to deal with. I hope that they get some relief/resolve on this issue soon for the safety of us all traveling in US airspace!

  • Diana Morgan

    If they have two, they can share sleeping equally. It is dangerous to have only one. Heart attacks, strokes, intestinal viruses can keep one away from the controls. We go on and on about aviation safety from terrorists, now we hear that “no one is home.” We don’t need terrorists; we are perfectly capable of killing ourselves without their help.

  • aviator

    Well, Mike, I think we’ve finally found something to agree upon.

    I have several questions regarding snoozy air traffic controllers:

    1) Who is going to pay for the additional staffing? Will this be used as an excuse to implement user fees?

    2) Why aren’t cheaper and more effective methods used to keep track of controllers? Years ago I read about dead man switches in locomotives, which have only one person in the cab. Basically, if a switch wasn’t thrown at regular intervals, indicating that the train driver was alive and well, all sorts of alarms would go off.

    3) The purpose of ATC is just that — air traffic control. Or, more specifically, separation of IFR aircraft. If there are few or no aircraft to separate because of the night shift, thus warranting only one soul in the tower cab, why not turn the airport into a non-towered field like some Class D airports? The aircraft dealing with snoozing controllers have already demonstrated that it can work.

  • Mike Danko


    Fatigue in the cockpit is a much more significant threat to safety than fatigue in the tower cab. But that issue is not in the public eye. So the FAA moves slowly. Dozing contollers make the front page, and so the FAA figures it must do something, fast, regardless of whether it makes sense.

    It seems that sometimes the FAA wants the flying public to feel safe rather than be safe.

  • QuickandtheDead

    OK, so I’ve listened to people speculating on how to “fix” the sleeping problem. I am blessed with the ability to come up with the best solution for just about any situation almost immediately, I will let you have two of my suggested methods and totally free of charge at that. Pick either and spend little money to make it so, far less than a second employee at probably 80-100 grand a year, although, I am all for more employment right now. Heck, one of you guys can even say you came up with the idea, I just don’t want to hear about it anymore when I flip onto the news; So here goes, the two I will give are as simple as this:
    #One and perhaps the easiest, when a pilot radios in with his call sign and there is no response after a few tries, there should either be an automatic alarm or give the pilot the ability to trip an alarm in the tower from the cockpit to wake any sleepers. Next and a little more high tech, use a 3D video camera setup and possibly audio system to monitor body and head position of the controller and if his body position falls into certain pre-set parameters or if he remains motionless for too long a period, an alarm automatically sounds, of course, in either case it can be instantly disengaged by the controller. There you have it, two relatively inexpensive, failsafe solutions… Now do it and stop the whining! And remember, you got it from QuickandtheDead

  • aviator

    QuickandtheDead, your solutions (if one can even call them that) are, by far, inferior to my dead man switch solution.

    Outfitting aircraft with abilities to wake sleeping controllers is absurd. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of a pilot to rouse controllers.

    About the only thing we agree upon, QATD, is that adding another controller to the mix will, as Mike puts it, result in TWO sleeping controllers.

  • quickandtheadead

    Hands down, a DMS is not the solution (not sure why you would dismiss my solutions so indiscriminately). Your tactic would simply become a nuisance more than anything else in an environment where there are already enough bells and whistles without another going off every few minutes to add to the mix and if it could be turned off during heavy traffic, what would stop them from doing it when they want a nap, I do agree it would keep the controllers awake if it was actually active. Bottom line, It already is the responsibility of the pilot to rouse the controller because it is the pilot who initiates contact, so they have been rousing them since the dawn of the system. With that said, there is nothing absurd about “outfitting” an aircraft to wake controllers since the planes already have the ability built in. In fact, all that would be needed is a proprietary radio frequency, then the pilot would simply key in on that frequency to initiate the alarm. Theoretically, it could actually cost nothing to do this aside from a little training on how the system is to be used and initial implementation. A drop in the bucket compared to a second employee or the cost od “power napping”(again, second employee). Anyway, if you can’t see the potential in this idea, explaining it to you further would be pointless, nuff said…

  • Diana Morgan

    Perhaps if they know that there is a surveillance camera on them, that would be enough to keep them awake. Put a central location in the picture and have someone monitoring up to 10 towers at a time. This would also eliminate drinking or drug use. Even if the controller uses the rest room to partake, his or her actions would be easy enough to detect.

  • aviator

    QATD, did you *read* my post about the DMS? A proper implementation would lessen the likelihood of it being a nuisance during heavy workloads by automatically resetting the timer when the mic is keyed. Further, controllers should not have the ability to silence or disable the switch. And my solution would work in all ATC environments — in towers, centers, TRACONs, etc.

    I’m not sure you’re instrument rated, but single pilot IFR is extremely demanding especially in hard IFR conditions. I, for one, don’t want (or need) an extra workload while shooting an approach to minimums. I don’t want to be fiddling with extra frequencies, as you suggest, while tracking a localizer, glideslope or VOR radial.

    Bottom line, I expect my tax dollars to keep (highly paid) controllers alert and working. If that fails, I’d be in favor of a low cost solution, like a DMS, but nothing that would cause addition work or expense on the pilot’s side.

    Diana M, I think aviation should look at other industries and learn how they do it. Perhaps there is something to be learned. For example, prison guards work overnight shifts and are expected to stay awake. How are they monitored?

  • Lisa Monroe

    “After reading the posts on this blog, I feel like I know a lot more about sleep solutions now. And based on the number of posts, I see I am not alone. My website, has not been up long, but I would like to refer people back to your website to read the info. Thanks again, Lisa Monroe.”

  • Mike Danko

    Thanks Lisa. Who would have thought that even sleep can be complicated.