5 Confessions of Air Traffic Controllers

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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.

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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.

But say you can come home and jump right into bed. If your down-time is say, between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m., there are distractions, because that's when most people are up and about. Sid McGuirk, a former air traffic controller and now a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, says, "When you're young, it's a wonderful thing, you can bounce back" from the lack of sleep. "That gets harder to do in your late 30s and 40s and 50s."

Of course, lack of sleep is a tricky concept, or as former controller Voss says, "Fatigue doesn't show up in an autopsy."

Confession: Weird Things We Do to Stay Awake

Caffeine, of course, is a staple for many, but when he wasn't drinking coffee, former controller Tom Anthony says he'd fight fatigue on the slow overnight shift by exercising: performing jumping jacks, sit-ups, push-ups, whatever he had to do. On the other hand, he'd also eat: He recalls one night in which he consumed something like 20 tamales. I guess heartburn helps keep you awake, too.

Confession: Air Traffic Control is Not Like Any Other Job

Some liken what controllers do to that of emergency room physicians or firefighters, who are on the job at odd hours, but former controllers note that those other professions are mostly "on" when there's actually something to do, such as stitch up a wound or put out a fire. When they're not busy with such things, those overnight professions can rest. As McGuirk points out, there are cots in fire stations for a reason.

Confession: Politics Won't Solve the Problem

All three former controllers noted the statement by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who said, "On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps." OK, says Voss, call it "mandated rest breaks" or call it whatever you like, but he strongly urges that such downtime be instituted as it is in other countries, such as Germany and Japan.

By the way, just to be clear, none of these former air traffic controllers had anything but praise for the job air traffic controllers do, by and large. They said the people in the towers are professional, hardworking and take great pride in the work they do, and with good reason.

All they are asking for is a bit of a break during those long, long nights, when nothing is happening and they have to fight to stay awake.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.