Airline Safety, Politics and the Workplace

By Frank Kenna

“On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Sunday, April 17th, in response to a handful of air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job.  At first glance, this seems like a reasonable statement to make.  But was it?
He also said that the Federal Aviation Administration announced that controllers would be given at least nine hours off between shifts instead of the current eight-hour minimum.  Will that really solve the problem?  A number of sleep experts say no.
For example, Sara Mednick, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, said, “How many of these potentially life-threatening errors will be sufficient for the FAA to recognize the cost of sleep deprivation? Although sleep researchers, such as myself, and the media have been alerting us to the importance of sleep for a while, it appears the people in charge have been slow to make the changes to the way we work during the hours when we are most vulnerable to sleepiness.  Night shift workers have it hard. They are supposed to perform at their peak during times when most of the world is asleep. This proves to be exceedingly difficult, as we can see by the large numbers of accidents attributed to fatigue-related errors each year.”
Workplace safety is too an important issue to play politics with.  If the experts say that napping for these types of workers is the answer, why not follow their advice?  When I’m cruising at 35,000 feet, I’ll be napping much more soundly if I know the air traffic controller (and pilot) is well rested.  Go ahead, take a nap!

Jude Carter
May 16, 2011

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