President Obama lectured air traffic controllers in an exclusive interview with ABC News, impressing on them the enormous responsibility of safeguarding flying passengers and telling them, "You better do your job."
The president spoke after several controllers were caught asleep on the job and the man in charge of air traffic control, Hank Krakowski, resigned on Thursday.
"The individuals who are falling asleep on the job, that's unacceptable," the president told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview on Thursday. "The fact is, when you're responsible for the lives and safety of people up in the air, you better do your job. So, there's an element of individual responsibility that has to be dealt with."
Five controllers have been suspended for apparently napping on the job while planes were trying to land at their airports.
The president said a full review of air traffic control work shifts is under way.
"What we also have to look at is air traffic control systems. Do we have enough back up? Do we have enough people? Are they getting enough rest time?" Obama said.
He added, however, "But it starts with individual responsibility."
In March, two commercial airliners were forced to land unassisted at Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport after a controller apparently fell asleep.
Just days later, two controllers at the Preston Smith International Airport in Lubbock, Texas, did not hand off control of a departing aircraft to another control center and it took repeated attempts for them to be reached.
On Feb. 19, an air traffic controller in Knoxville, Tenn., slept during an overnight shift. Sources told ABC News that the worker even took pillows and cushions from a break room to build a make-shift bed on the control room floor.
And this month, there were two more incidents. A controller fell asleep on the job in Seattle, and days later a controller in Reno was snoozing when a plane carrying a critically ill passenger was seeking permission to land.
The FAA and the controller's union have been studying the fatigue issue for over a year and their report finds that "acute fatigue occurs on a daily basis," and "fatigue can occur at any time, on any shift."
Sleep experts suggest midshift naps
Some sleep experts said controllers are ripe for fatigue because they often bounce between day shifts and night shifts. "When we're constantly having to adjust to different work schedules, our body is always playing catch up," said Philip Gehrman, Director of the Behavioral Sleep Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Controllers on the night shift have another hurdle: they often work in dim light conditions with little stimulation between radio calls. "That's exactly the kind of type of task that's hardest to maintain, when you're at the wrong point in you biological rhythms," said Gehrman.
One recommendation from the government study suggests allowing controllers to take scheduled naps, with breaks as long as two and a half hours to allow for sleeping and waking up.
Sleep experts said a long break in the middle of an eight hour overnight shift would help, but it might be a tough sell politically. It has taken decades to try to come up with new fatigue rules for pilots and it may not be any easier when it comes to controllers.
ABC News Ben Forer contributed to this report