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Study: Fatigue, Air Traffic And Safety

April 26, 2011

There have been several reports in recent weeks of air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job.

There are only two people who handle the task of giving directions to planes.  These people experience irregular shifts that can lead to extreme fatigue, although the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires air traffic controllers to have at least 8 hours of time between shifts for sleep. 

It is not uncommon for a controller to work from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. and then be back at work at 11 p.m. to work the midnight shift until 7 a.m. the next morning.

Dr. Richard Bootzin, a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Arizona, who also serves as Director of the Insomnia Clinic at the University Medical Center, said in a statement: “The relatively short time between shifts puts pressure on people to sleep and there are consequences when people are overly sleepy or fatigued.”

Bootzin said in a statement this problem is not unique to air traffic controllers, as many other occupations also involve around the clock shifts.

He believes the solution is not to punish air traffic controllers, but to make changes that will help make a more conductive working environment.

“There is a lot of literature on this very problem and several ways to remedy the situation,” he said.

Michael Scullin, a doctoral candidate at Washington University’s Department of Psychology in St. Louis, said sleep plays an important role in an air traffic controller’s job.

“One of the things we know about sleep deprivation is that it affects your ability to use your cognitive resources in an efficient manner,” Scullin said in a statement.

“Air traffic controllers have a lot of prospective memory demands; they may be working on the evaluation of locations of planes and at the same time have to re-route an airplane. This is very cognitively demanding,” said Scullin who also stresses the importance of proper sleep as opposed to quick-fixes such as caffeine, which does not eliminate the problem of fatigue.

Bootzin will be presenting his paper on this issue at the APS 23rd Annual Convention in Washington, D.C.

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