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.