Air Traffic Controllers: Let Them Nap

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The next time TIME’s D.C. Bureau Chief Michael Duffy catches me sleeping at my desk, the top sheet of an National Transportation Safety Board report stuck to my face, I’ll be ready with a response: I was increasing my work performance and alertness—significantly.

“A controlled nap can improve performance significantly,” says Mark Rosekind, a member of the NTSB and a long-time expert on the dangers of fatigue. Rosekind told reporters Monday that a 1995 NASA study found that “a 26-minute nap improved performance 34% and alertness 54%.”

That study, along with other research, has led the NTSB  to push the following counterintuitive suggestion for the problem of napping air traffic controllers: let them nap. The next opportunity to introduce the NTSB-recommended reforms may come in the FAA’s budget reauthorization legislation due to be considered in coming weeks on Capitol Hill.

The NASA study compared alertness among trans-Pacific airline pilots. It “allowed one group of pilots flying across the Pacific to take a 25-minute nap while their co-pilots flew the planes, while a control group was required to stay awake for the entire flight. Those without the naps nodded off five times as much – including while on the approach to the airport – as those who got some sleep,” reported the AP in 2009.

Some foreign carriers have adopted the conclusions and now allow pilots to take short naps on long flights while co-pilots remain awake. But the FAA and US carriers have resisted the changes.

The recent scandals over air traffic controllers sleeping on the job—the FAA just fired a third air traffic controller—has given the relatively powerless NTSB what it hopes is an opportunity to end-run a persistent political obstacle to reform.

Tighter shifts reduce costs for airports and boost overtime income for controllers, giving both the pro-industry FAA and NATCA, the air controllers union, reasons for resisting NTSB’s push for increased mandatory rest periods.

“Very often economics is the 800 lb gorilla, and if you don’t address that you’re never going to get any movement on the fatigue issue,” Rosekind said. By allowing napping on the job, the NTSB recommendations would address the air controllers interests by letting them still earn the overtime while increasing their alertness.

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