Air traffic control comparisons

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. It's enough to make you pay extra attention when the flight attendant goes through that safety drill. Some Americans are wondering about something they've always taken for granted, the air traffic control system. There have been five cases of controllers falling asleep on the job. One controller was caught watching a DVD at his post. And a plane carrying Michelle Obama was forced into an aborted landing. But Bill Voss, President and CEO of the FLight Safety Foundation, says you needn't worry about flying in America.

Bill Voss: The air traffic control system in the US is spectacularly safe, which is amazing considering the extraordinary density of traffic it has. The only other system really that compares closely would be the European air traffic control system, and I have to say they also are doing a really solid job. You have perhaps some other systems in less sophisticated parts of the world with less technologies, you know, the central parts of Africa, some parts over the Amazon and Brazil and so on where it's a bit more worrisome, but generally air traffic control has not contributed to many accidents of late.

Mullins: Well, when you hear about falling asleep for instance, overnight on shifts where traffic controllers, at least in the United States, cannot even nap during a break, how do other countries deal with that?

Voss: Well, I think the US is the only one that has a mandatory television watching policy at night. You know, where you have to stay awake in the break room and read a book or watch TV.

Mullins: You can't take a nap.

Voss: The rest of the countries have not or never adopted similar policies. It's, really the policy in the US has its roots in office personnel management regulation. Most other countries that I'm aware of and some specifically have very well-defined, controlled rest periods, which is the way to do this sort of thing.

Mullins: Give us an example of the mandates elsewhere.

Voss: Well, mandatory rest periods can be defined in ways for example, that these can only be done during certain times of the day where this controller can be spared off a position easily for a designated period of time, that it's mandatory, that the controller wakes up perhaps 30 minutes before resuming work on the position to prevent something known as sleep inertia. That's the same type of process that's actually been put in place in cockpits in most places around the world, where pilots on long international lags, if they're experiencing undo fatigue, they're actually permitted to have that type of structured rest in the cockpit.

Mullins: And is there one particular air traffic control system that is handling the problem especially well using some of the policies you mentioned...

Voss: I think our neighbors in Canada have done particularly well on this. They actually went down the same process as we did. They had difficulties up in the northern territories, people falling asleep there. And so they put on two people and then they ended up having two controllers falling asleep. Subsequently, they adopted controlled rest and that solved a lot of the problems. And so I think they've been down the road ahead of us on this.

Mullins: So, I mean that doesn't sound like it's such a sophisticated solution to the problem. How come the FAA hasn't adopted that?

Voss: It's politically incorrect; one has to only look at the outrage that has been displayed by the politicians involved at the very thought that we might allow a public servant to sleep on his duty time.

Mullins: Mr. Voss, you were an air traffic controller for how long?

Voss: I did about 6-7 years on the boards and then management another 15 after that.

Mullins: And did you ever fall asleep on the job?

Voss: I really don't remember. There were a lot of other people that did. My neck certainly snapped a few times I recall.

Mullins: So how did you stay awake?

Voss: You know, hopefully you get a shift with somebody you can talk to a great deal, and basically, just try to find busy work to do. But even at the very best, when you get to those hours between 3:00AM and 5:00AM when you're in you're low Circadian rhythm, it's painful. And it's also worrisome because you really drive home in a state that's probably worse than if you were actually legally drunk, according to the science. And that's always a problem. The biggest worry was not dying going home.

Mullins: So, what is the solution that you recommend most?

Voss: You know, if you use cold hard science and put all the blustering away, there's no question if you simply mandate a short rest period for a controller, and if you allow that person to have over 30 minutes, the science shows a remarkable restorative effect.

Mullins: Bill Voss, President and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, speaking to us from California. Assuming that you never fell asleep on the job, and let's make that a safe assumption, belated thank you.

Voss: Thank you.