Sleeping “On the Job”

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Much of the news in the Spring of 2011 was story of sleeping air traffic controllers. As is usually the case in technical news in general and ATC stories in particular, little in the way of context or real facts was ever provided, but poutrage abounded over, well, I’m not sure what. So, in an effort to edify, let me give you my experience of 30 years and sleep.

I don’t recall my very first midnight shift. It was almost certainly sometime in the Summer of 1968. I was 22½ years old, and like anyone that age and with a new adventure in prospect, getting through a midnight shift was not difficult. Our schedule at ZJX had us working five mids in a row, every five weeks—sort of a stretched out 2-2-1*.

From Summer through Fall, and for another year or so, I regularly worked five mids every five weeks—somewhere between fifty and seventy five of them, I imagine, at least that’s what the math suggests. I never actually counted them or recorded them, and there’s no record of them anywhere. I learned early on that there was some proscription in the FAA’s Conduct and Discipline manual against a lot of things, including gambling and sleeping on duty. Oddly enough, it was almost universally accepted among both management and workforce that gambling was a bad thing. The odder thing was that there was also an assumed nexus between playing cards and gambling, which is not only unsupportable by facts, but later proved to be a matter of complete disinterest by management from around the late ’80s until I retired. I played thousands of hands of hearts, spades, pinochle, euchre, and cribbage during those years.

Sleeping, however, was an issue of varying significance from the moment I stepped on the floor of the control room until my last mid shift nearly 30 years later. We learned early on what positions (Low Altitude, High Altitude, Flight Data) were more advantageous for catching naps and which supervisors were more or less likely to have sleep on the brain. Some supervisors rarely left the desk during the watch and couldn’t care less whether someone was sleeping even if they did. Others made it a regular practice to tour the control room to roust dozing controllers from their somnolence. Some of the wakers restricted their tour to the control room, effectively giving the wink and the nod to folks who had retired to a “secret” hiding place in which to catch a nap. Others (most likely practitioners in their own right before they were supervisors) expanded their search to the bowels of the facility

Moreover, there was a pretty significant change in attitude in the facilities I worked in if comparing 1968, say, and 1988. The sticking point always seemed to land on a strict construction of that “sleeping on duty” phrase in the C&D manual. To this day, I make the distinction between “on duty” and “on the clock”. To me, “on the clock” means I’m in the building, being paid, but perhaps engaging in any number of authorized activities such as reading, initialing the read binder, eating, or otherwise on break, but, by definition, I’m not “on duty”. On the other had, if I’m bellyed up to the radar and performing ATC duties, I’m again, by definition, “on duty”. Sleeping “on duty” is largely indefinsible—sleeping “on the clock” is no different than any other activity away from the duty position.

So, with all that background, I can give you my thoughts on the matter currently at hand in 2011. From my response on FaceBook to a friend who opined, “seems like we're gonna have 2 pull u outta retirement 2 instruct the air traffic controllers how 2 Stay awake in the tower!!!!!” (my friend, who is a high school classmate, and thus, my age, thinks he’s a teenager.) Much of my response is a reprise of what I’ve laid out above, but adds the firefighter analogy, which I’ve yet to hear articulated in the argument.

I’d be a lousy example. I was long an advocate (and practitioner) of sleeping on mids. Now, the big difference in my philosophy and what's been reported recently, is in the phrase “on duty”. “On duty”, to me has always meant sitting at the radar (or handling “local” in the tower cab). I’ve never defended sleeping “on duty”. “On the clock”, however, has an entirely different context to me, and sleeping “on the clock” is completely defensible. You only have to look at firefighters to grasp it.

Firefighters aren’t paid to stay awake—they’re paid to put out fires. Controllers at a position are paid to work airplanes (and when there are enough of them, “put out the fire”). If there’s no fire (and particularly if it’s nighttime), the firefighters head for the dorms thoughtfully provided by the community. Controllers off duty but “on the clock” deserve no less. Sadly, try selling that to conservatives.

I saw a wide range of tolerance to napping (that is, on breaks). Some supervisors recognized it for what it was—a necessity to fight circadian anomalies in shift work. Others felt it was their duty to prowl around the facility and ferret out all the miscreants in their hiding places. Most of the time during the ’90s it was pretty easy to get some needed sleep, even on day shifts, so long as you were back when you were supposed to and you responded to pages if you were needed sooner.

As I mentioned in my othersleeping storythe FAA has spent a lot of money studying the advantages of sleep periods during non-duty aspects of pilots when flying at night. Not only did they ignore controllers in their original findings, but they’re backing away from support for pilots, now, too. Apparently this “sleeping on duty” meme is toxic and incendiary. It’s as if they think the taxpayers would rather have sleepy people at work than pay them just like firefighters. Mind boggling.

* 2-2-1 is a shift rotation consisting of two evening (swing) shifts, followed by two day shifts, followed by a mid shift. Young controllers love them. The older one gets, the harder it is to adjust to the quick turnaround between days 2 and 3 and the quick turnaround between days 4 and 5.

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Last updated: 17 November 2011