Sleeping on the job could be one of several ways to help prevent future accidents involving air traffic controllers.
Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va., said he's hopeful that the attention generated by the recent sleeping incidents will cause the Federal Aviation Administration to change its policies. He hopes it allows controllers working at night to take extended nap breaks that can help them stay more alert when they go back to their tasks. That's something sleep scientists have long recommended and many other countries already permit.
Many controllers work schedules that allow no realistic opportunity for rest. Some report working an eight-hour shift, then get eight hours off, then report back for another eight-hour shift.
And their record for errors on the job has grown sharply over the last several years.
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt's decision to end the agency's practice of staffing some airport towers where traffic is light between midnight and 6 a.m. with a single controller was a response to at least five incidents in which controllers fell asleep on duty, one at Reagan National Airport.
On Saturday morning, another air traffic controller was caught sleeping while on duty.
In response to the incident, Babbitt said in a statement that new procedures to reduce fatigue among air traffic controllers would be introduced by the start of next week.
"We are taking important steps today that will make a real difference in fighting air traffic controller fatigue. But we know we will need to do more," Babbitt said in a statement Saturday.