Air traffic controllers fall asleep on the job. At least they do occasionally. That came as big news in 2011, when two airliners landed at Washington’s Reagan National Airport without ATC help because the lone controller was snoozing. No injuries there, but in 2006 a Comair regional jet crashed while taking off in Kentucky, killing 49 of the 50 people on board. The air traffic controller who cleared the plane for takeoff didn’t notice the plane was taking off from the wrong runway. He had slept only two hours in the previous 24.
The question then was whether the problem of sleeping or sleep-deprived controllers was an isolated one or instead a significant, pervasive risk to aviation safety.
The FAA paid NASA $1.2 million to find out. The NASA study’s findings: the schedules controllers work lead to chronic fatigue and pressure to fall asleep. In fact, a third of the controllers in the study reported that fatigue was a “high” or “extreme” safety risk. More alarming was that 6 out of 10 controllers report that they had fallen asleep or experienced a lapse in attention while driving to or from a midnight shift. If sleepiness is making controllers unsafe to drive, it’s certainly making them unsafe to work.
The study’s conclusion was clear:
Chronic fatigue may be considered to pose a significant risk to controller alertness, and hence to the safety of the ATC (air traffic control) system.
Perhaps most interesting is that, according to an Associated Press report, the FAA has kept the FAA’s report secret for three years. Though completed in 2012, the study was released just this week. No explanation from the FAA as to why it has kept the study from the public for all this time.