5 Confessions of Air Traffic Controllers

VIDEO: Veteran controller tested for drugs and alcohol while working on job.

We've seen those stories in recent weeks about air traffic controllers reportedly falling asleep on the job and, yes, I'm told, it happens.

I'm also told the overwhelming number of controllers who snooze have no intention of doing so. They fight it. But even those who do manage to stay awake sometimes do so just barely: Former air traffic controller Tom Anthony once made it through his shift only to drift off on the drive home and total his car.

But then, you too might fall asleep yourself, working "the rattler" (more on that later); so might I, so might anyone. At least, that's what three former air traffic controllers tell us here at FareCompare, and while their statements by no means represent any sort of scientific poll of the tens of thousands of men and women who guide our country's aircraft, the sheer common sense of what these three had to say seems pretty overwhelming. But you be the judge.

Here are some of their "confessions" about the tough job they have done as controllers, which may give another side to what some see as "lazy government employees" not doing the work they were paid to do.

For more travel news and insights, view Rick's blog at farecompare.com.

What's is it like to be an air traffic controller? According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics occupational handbook, "The mental stress of being responsible for the safety of several aircraft and their passengers can be exhausting." Indeed it can, especially when working the rattler.

Confession: Working the Rattler is Brutal

The so-called rattler is a compressed work week in which prep time, work time and recuperation time for five shifts is compressed into fewer days to maximize time off. When Tom Anthony, who is now director of the Aviation Safety and Security Program at the University of Southern California first ran into this as a young air traffic controller, he asked, "Does any responsible adult know we're doing this?"

With eight hours off between some shifts (and now it's been upped to nine), the fatigue factor builds up, particularly in the brutal overnight hours when there is little to do except stare at an empty screen, since few passenger planes take off or land in the wee hours.

ABC News reported on a fatigue study by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association that found that such shifts do not give controllers "time to adjust to any one set of waking and sleeping hours."

Says Bill Voss, a former air traffic controller who now heads the Flight Safety Foundation, "Your performance can degrade so it's as though you're legally drunk." You'll find information on his foundation's website to support this claim; also cited there is research from a NASA flight surgeon.

Confession: Eight or Nine Hours is Not Enough

Wait a minute, you may be thinking, even on these brutal shifts, controllers do get eight and now nine hours off, and you may also be thinking how rare it is that you get a full eight hours of sleep a night. Well, consider that in the space of that eight to nine hours off, air traffic controllers have to drive home (and drive back to work) and then once they're home, they no doubt check the mail, maybe chat with the family, grab a bite to eat, whatever. I mean, can you come home and jump right into bed? So that sleep time slips away.

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