Why Air Traffic Controllers Fall Asleep on the Job

They have the last word on their work schedule, including the notorious 2-2-1.


Between the aborted landing of Michelle Obama's plane at Andrews Air Force Base and a rash of sleeping air traffic controllers, air travelers must be wondering what's going on. The number of "operational errors" in which Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) aircraft-separation standards were violated has nearly doubled since 2009.

Controller fatigue is obviously a major factor. The FAA has known about the problem for decades but has repeatedly swept it under the rug. Finally, on April 17, the FAA implemented changes to scheduling practices that will allow controllers more time for rest between shifts. But the changes only address part of the fatigue problem. And they don't face up to the reason for the FAA's repeated failures to deal with the issue.

For decades, even predating the 1981 air traffic controller strike, controllers themselves have had the last word on the schedules they work. One of the most popular is called 2-2-1: Controllers work two swing shifts, two day shifts, and one midnight shift. The second day shifts ends at 2 p.m. and the subsequent midnight shift begins at 10 p.m., just eight hours later. Such a schedule disrupts circadian rhythms, creating fatigue on the midnight shift.

Within air traffic circles, this problem is so well-known that 2-2-1 has long been called "the rattler," since it can come back and bite the controller, degrading his performance. But controllers and their union have fought to keep 2-2-1 because it gives them a three-day weekend afterwards.

The National Transportation Safety Board called for abolishing 2-2-1 in an April 2007 report, and the inspector general for the Department of Transportation has called for a 10-hour minimum between shifts in general, and 16 hours after a midnight shift. It's not clear if the new FAA rules eliminate 2-2-1. And they only increase the minimum time between shifts to nine hours, not the recommended 10.

The other cause of fatigue on midnight shifts is black backgrounds on controller display screens, which require dark rooms for best visibility. But dark rooms tend to induce drowsiness, especially on a midnight shift. It is now common international practice to have light gray background screen displays that can be used in high-light environments, but in the U.S. we've all but ignored this advancement.

The FAA would not tolerate such threats to air safety from airlines, or from mechanics, or from aircraft producers. It regulates all such entities at arm's length—and it has cracked down on airline scheduling practices conducive to pilot fatigue. But the FAA has tolerated 2-2-1 schedules and dark control rooms for decades. Why? Because the Air Traffic Organization, whose job is to "move air traffic safely and efficiently," is within the FAA, which in effect means the agency is regulating itself.

The remedy for this is to separate air safety regulation from the provision of air traffic control services, so as to bring about true arm's-length safety regulation of air traffic control. That may sound like a radical change, but over the past 15 years nearly every developed country (except the U.S.) has made this change, consistent with policy set forth by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

There's another important reason for doing this now. The FAA is in the early stages of the biggest change in air traffic management since the introduction of radar in the 1950s. It's called the NextGen system. Using new technologies and process automation, NextGen will permit planes to fly closer together safely, adding much-needed capacity to airports and airspace. But this will require careful assessment of the trade-offs involved. The safety regulator making those assessments will have far more credibility if it is independent.

The current controller-fatigue flap is actually a wake-up call. For NextGen to succeed, we need an independent aviation safety regulator. And that means we must separate the Air Traffic Organization from the FAA.

Langhorne Bond was FAA administrator from 1977 to 1981. Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

[Watch "Your Flight Has Been Delayed—and it's Washington's Fault," which calls for air-traffic-control reform and features Robert W. Poole]

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  1. Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.

    1. Damn…too slow.

      1. Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines

    2. god damn it, you got to it before me

      best movie EVER

  2. But controllers and their union have fought to keep 2-2-1 because it gives them a three-day weekend afterwards.

    So they can catch up on their sleep, no doubt.

  3. drug testing. if they were allowed coke or amphetamines this wouldn’t be a problem.

  4. How about we abolish the FAA, admit that the government never had any authority whatsoever to establish any agency of any such stripe, and fix the problem that way? Fuck government aviation authorities.

    1. Surley you can’t be serious.

      1. I’m completely serious, and don’t call me Shirley.

        1. i picked a bad week to stop sniffing shirley

      2. Nothing surly about that comment that I could see.

        1. forgot how to spell

      3. You’re making a joke, right? Because my sarcasm/joke meter broke a few days after I arrived here. Yeah, I believe the FAA should be abolished wholly.

        1. Couldn’t resist making the joke. Totally agree with you, I’d abolish the whole alphabet soup of gov’t nanny agencies.

    2. Flying a plane is a privilege, not a right. Government built the sky that you’re using. You can’t expect them to let us use it for free or without any oversight on their part. Think of the children.

      1. Yeah, I know. Fucking Republitards and libert-ARYANS. When’s the last time you saw people at a skating rink actually skate successfully without a central planning committee sitting in the center of the damned thing guiding their useless, dumb, sorry asses along the path to not falling on your ass? Besides, they’d abuse the rink and each other without oversight! There’d be a new Holocaust!657

  5. It must be TEH UNIONZ!

    1. Yeah, it kinda looks that way.

    2. Not always, but we can take it that your response here acknowledges your total lack of counterarguments or facts, right?

      Fact: Plenty of scientific evidence (mostly on doctors and residents) suggests that schedules like the 2-2-1 are very bad for concentration and work performance.

      Fact: The NSTB and DOT’s inspector general have pushed to eliminate that schedule, based on such evidence.

      Fact: The air traffic controllers union has heavily resisted the change, and stymied it.

      1. I flew single engine fighters in the Air Force, but this plane has four engines. It’s an entirely different kind of flying. Altogether.

        1. It’s an entirely different kind of flying.

        2. “I flew single engine fighters in the Air Force, but this plane has four engines. It’s an entirely different kind of flying.”

      2. If these statements are all true, yes it is TEH UNIONZ.

      3. The Air Traffic Controllers union that got broke decades ago is the cause?


        I mean, somehow the crippled union has the power to force the 2-2-1 on its administrators but not the power to enact its preferred method of dealing with this, hiring more controllers?

        1. I mean, you guys are Orwellian in your union hate.

          Snowball, while vanquished, is somewhere among the unions still with great power to sabotage the farm!

          1. Have you ever seen a grown man naked?

    3. The story I heard from an FAA guy recently was that the ATCU convinced the FAA that rather than hiring managers, they should just allow ATCs to take turns wearing the manager’s hat. Since the average manager made 15% more than ATCs, it was a 15% savings, right? Guess how peer management works out.

      Also, same guy said that they had recently implemented a system where there were no consequences for self-reporting an “incident”, which may be why we are suddenly seeing incidents.

  6. Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?

    1. Why don’t you come by for a cup of coffee?

      1. bring flowers & those latex thingys

  7. I wrote a serious post on this subject

    1. No you didn’t.

    2. rather|5.2.11 @ 12:48PM|#

      I wrote a serious post on this subject

      Good thing I wasn’t drinking when I read that, or I’d have tea all over my computer.

      rather + serious = oxymoron (or oxyretarded)

    3. I was curious whether you make money from your blog or not ? And if you do, who are you trying to attract, the libertarians or non libertarians ?

  8. Why Air Traffic Controllers Fall Asleep on the Job

    Because they’re tired?

    1. No no, it’s obviously because they buy crappy Chinese coffee at Walmart.

      1. Up late at tractor pulls the night before their shift.

        1. WRONG. They attend much classier luggage-cart pulls.

  9. I was never an air trafic controler. But I was in the air force and had to do swing shifts quite often. It does mess with your circadian cycles. That shift for the atc’s looks sounds even worse than mine!

  10. No problem. Let me handle it.

  11. Prediction –

    President Barack Obama announces plans for a new department of government, the Department of Air Traffic Controller Veterans and Flight Schedule Regulation and Oversight, or the DoATVaFSRO.

    Meanwhile, dildos are banned in Europe as dangerous weapons.

    1. DoATCVaFSRO.*

  12. The easiest, best and cheapest solution to tower controllers sleeping at night is to let them sleep… at home. Close the control towers at night and don’t worry about it anymore — problem solved.

    But what of safety, you ask? The simple answer is this is not a safety issue… here’s why.

    Of the roughly 14,000 airports in the US only 500 or so have enough air traffic to warrant a control tower to begin with. Of those, only 30 or so keep their towers open at night. The question is, why?

    Indeed, Washington National, one of the airports at which a tower controller was caught sleeping, maintains a curfew between 10pm and 7am that prohibits flight operations except for scheduled flights that have been delayed. Why is a controller on duty during a curfew that limits the volume of air traffic to maybe one or two flights per hour?

    But, how can pilots get by without tower controllers, you ask?

    All pilots are trained to operate at non-towered airports. It’s something all must learn, because 1) the vast majority of airports do not have towers (some non-towered airports even have scheduled airline service), and 2) the vast majority of initial flight training occurs at non-towered airports. When was the last time you heard of a Cessna doing practice touch & go landings at La Guardia, on purpose that is?

    Those paying attention may have noticed that in all the reported cases (I’m sure it happens much more often) of tower controllers sleeping on the job, the pilots still managed to land their aircraft safely. Why? Because a pilot doesn’t require a tower controller to safely land an aircraft. Unless (s)he has very long arms, the tower controller is nowhere near the flight controls when the pilot of the heavy airliner you’re sitting in is landing on a dark, rainy, blustery night. Tower controllers are only there to assist pilots in coordinating use of airport airspace and runway(s) when the volume of air traffic warrants it. When traffic is light — as it is at pretty much ANY airport at 3am — pilots are trained and fully capable of coordinating between themselves; no federal assistance required.

    Ultimately, there is good news and bad news for the flying public: The good news is the “danger” posed by the problem of tower controllers sleeping at night is nonexistent. The bad news is the government is going to “fix” the problem.

    The funny-if-it-weren’t-so-sad part is only a government bureaucrat in full CYA mode (say hey, Ray!) would solve the problem posed by a job so bereft of functional duties, so desperately boring that those doing it fall asleep, by adding staff.

    1. I learned to fly in an L2. Hand proping at every start up, plane tied and chalked an I worked the fuel etc between pulls.
      We had a battery powered radio (we were at Reid Hillview Santa Clara County)in one of the busiest public ports in the nation. Towers closed at dark or earlier daily.

      When the batteries died and towers were opened…we flew by the lights, letting the tower signal us with lights instead of radio. This was probably one of the BEST learning experiences I could ever have gotten. No one gets to practice that any more!

      One thing that the public does NOT understand is that a pilot is in COMMAND at all times. He can tell the tower to “shove it” if eh feels it is unsafe or if it will harm him or create a danger to his aircraft or occupants.

      The pilot has the LAST say. Remember that generally ALL accidents are “pilot error” in the end. That is because the Pilot IS in control and responsible regardless of the controller at an airfield.

  13. “You’re needed in the cockpit.”

    “The cockpit? What is it?”

    “It the little room at the front of the plane where the pilots sit, but that’s not important right now.”

    1. “It’s”, not “It”. Damn fat fingers.

      1. Cockpits should be NBC-protected, the doors must be at least 5 inches thick, and it should be made of high-grade titanium. Passengers should be strapped into their seats, arms restrained, until arrival, where they’ll be escorted out of the aircraft by SWAT teams in full gear.

        Children must be gagged and sedated during travel to prevent the air marshals from reacting to what is very likely a terrorist attack, but turns out to be a kid crying to his parents about some random shit.

        Also, the production of metal in the United States should stop completely. And imports of metal. Metal is used in the construction of firearms components, and firearms are often used to kill people in Harlem and Boston and other foreign lands.

        TSA is best thing ever.

        Do you sheeple agree?

        1. I’ll never get over Macho Grande.

  14. I have created many work schedules that “rotate” shifts. I always make sure that there is at LEAST 12 hours between shifts. It is more usual for me to extend the total hours to MORE than less between shifts. This allows for rythm changes and personal schedules.

    I have done this for managers in companies like Home Depot. They had been notorious for making employees angry and lowering their reviews by the schedules they had to keep. It would cause many to quit after short times (which was probably a corporate goal to begin with).

    In the end I created a system that eventually leads to a 4 day weekend once every 4 weeks, two one day weekends and two two day weekends. It also maintained a 40 hour work week.

    Now, consider, that IF a company creates a 45 hour work week the numbers actually work out more easily!

    I would suggest also that no one work ALL three shifts, instead only TWO. This is much easier rythm change.

  15. Never frown, even when you are sad, because you never know who is falling in love with your smile.

  16. I would suggest also that no one work ALL three shifts, instead only TWO. This is much easier rythm change.

    1. I would suggest that no one work any shifts. Ever. This will be an impossible rythm to change.

  17. The 2-2-1 scheduling needs to be ended. I’ve worked this sort of shift in the past, and it’s horrible.

  18. Once again another article written by those who don’t bother to investigate the story fully but yet chose to blame the controllers and their union for the shortcomings of the FAA.

    FACT: The FAA retains control over the schedule and working hours of the controller. If you would like I can arrange for you to receive a copy of the current FAA/NATCA contract. In it you will find that the FAA retains the final control over many issues, one of which is the schedule that we work. This schedule existed during the PATCO era, when there was no union (wonder why the FAA didn’t do something about it then if it was the union stopping them) and since NATCA came into existence.

    A controller is paid according to how busy a facility is and to ensure that each person gets their fair share of peak times the FAA rotates them through all the shifts. There is a friendly version of the “rattler” and with that one it starts on the mid, followed by 2 day and then 2 nights. The FAA can’t use this schedule even if they wanted to. Why? Because they would lose out on the needed overtime pool needed to keep the facilities fully staffed and running. With the reverse one the mid would technically start on the person’s second day off and would count as a working day and with the current rules governing how many hours a controller can work in a day (10) and how many days they can work in a row (6), the FAA would not be able to call in any overtime that is needed to keep the system running.

    I challenge anyone out there to work the “rattler” and feel like they are getting 3 days off. You get off at 6 or 7am after working 16 hours in a 24 hour period and the only thing you want to do is go home and get some sleep. The mid is worked by normally 2 people and the rest of your crew is working the day shift as their last day. So to give the public the impression that we always get 3 days off during the work week is not true.

    LaHood was quick to tell the public that the controllers would get an extra hour between shifts but in the end they got an extra hour between the night shift and the day shift and the news making mid shift still only has 8 hours between off from the day shift.

    The issue of fatigue has been known about for many years within the FAA and it is the failure of FAA management to do something about it…not the controllers or their union. The FAA has heard from the NTSB, they hire experts, do studies and their findings are always the same. The current schedule used is the most fatigue causing schedule to work and not only can it cause fatigue but can cause other health issues. The FAA knows this and has the power to change it but instead they ignore the issue, until it comes up again, they’ll do another study and once again nothing will be changed. It is not only the controllers falling asleep on the job it’s also those within FAA management who won’t do anything about it.

  19. Towerflower,
    I would love to see some links to evidence of the controller union speaking out against the 2 2 1.
    You also seemed to have misunderstood the article, or are arguing with assertions made elsewhere, as much of your post seems a non sequitur.

    1. Statement from NATCA President Paul Rinaldi on FAA latest steps to address fatigue
      Saturday, April 16, 2011

      “However, our main focus is upholding our highest standards of professionalism and working with the FAA to reduce the effects of fatigue. To that end, the Administrator has made a smart move today to prohibit scheduling practices that have been identified as those most likely to result in air traffic controller fatigue.”

      I believe I understood the article. The first half of it addressed the “rattler” schedule and it wrongly identified the union and it’s controllers as having control over it when the opposite is true. The FAA has control over it and even when there was no union (between PATCO and NATCA) why didn’t the FAA move then to change the schedule? Could it be it has nothing to do with the union and everything that I mentioned above?

      1. Here’s another one dealing with COM5191 that crashed on takeoff in Lexington on August 27, 2006:…..file/Media Center/Press Releases/2007/NATCASubmissionToNTSBonCOMAIR5191.pdf

        Go down to Pages 12-14.

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  21. Hmm. Okay, maybe it’s besides the point, but. That isn’t even a particularly crazy schedule. I guess the work is more important and/or boring than, say, unskilled work where back to back double or triple shifts and alternating day/night shifts are common, but 8 hours between shifts is pretty sweet.

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