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. 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.)