Trouble in the Air

Reagan's mass firing of air traffic controllers made American skies much less safe in the 1980s. Is Bush's flight plan the same?

The nontract, which is valid for the next five years, also no longer guarantees a ten-minute break every two hours of work. Taking a short break four times a day to get coffee or go for a walk might seem like a cushy perk on some jobs. But for a controller who simultaneously monitors about fifteen airplanes every minute of the day, a ten-minute break could be all that's needed to prevent another Cerritos.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the new rule, which says the breaks are now a "goal" but no longer required, merely gives supervisors more scheduling flexibility. "I think that it's pretty well proven that controllers can work longer on position than two hours — as long as they're not getting hammered," he said.

But the union argues that the FAA's crackdown on breaks is more likely the result of having too few controllers on the payroll. And at least one scientific study of workers in stressful jobs appears to contradict the FAA claims. According to 2003 research published in the British medical journal The Lancetby Professor Simon Folkard of the University of Wales, a leading expert on the effect of work schedules on job performance, the risk of accidents doubles as workers approach the two-hour mark without a break.

Union president Jeff Tilley says controllers age fast.
photo: Sean Donnelly
Union president Jeff Tilley says controllers age fast.

Not getting a breather is one thing, but forcing a tired controller to show up day after day is just asking for trouble. The Lexington controller, who got only two hours of sleep in the previous 24 hours because he had only nine hours off between shifts, might as well have downed a beer while on duty, said Charles Czeisler, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. "Sleeping only two hours in a 24-hour period impairs performance as if they had a blood alcohol of .05 percent," said Czeisler, who is also a senior physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "If there's no sleep for 24 hours, then it's as if they had a blood alcohol of .10 percent." In other words, Blakey's new rules are essentially placing drunken air traffic controllers at the helm.

Gregor of the FAA said that the no-sick-leave-when-tired rule is merely an attempt to curb abuse. "The use of sick leave among air traffic controllers was much, much higher than other FAA personnel," he said. He added that FAA supervisors will send home controllers who are too exhausted to track planes: "There is no way a manager will put a controller on position who is too tired to be on position. We're not going to compromise safety." But controllers say that's exactly what Blakey's FAA has done.

If controllers are right, then the witching hour for a sleep-induced accident is the graveyard shift. Such overnighters often come at the end of a quick turnaround. Typically, controllers will report to work at 7 a.m. and be off by 3 p.m. Then, after nine hours off, they'll return at midnight. Under FAA rules, the minimum time off between shifts is eight hours. At Oakland Center, many controllers commute to work from the Central Valley, where housing is cheaper. That means they might be home by 4:30 p.m. from a shift that ends at three, and then they'll have to jump back in their cars at 10:30 that night, leaving only six hours to eat, sleep, and be a parent.

Another problem is that the most difficult time for people to fall asleep is the early evening. "We're increasing the probability of sleep-related accidents," said Czeisler, who is also president of the Sleep Research Society Foundation. Asked about the prohibition of time off to rest, coupled with the crackdown on breaks and the routine irregular shifts, he noted, "They upset the body's circadian rhythms. You're setting the stage for fatigue-related errors."

The FAA appears unconcerned about such warnings. "It's up to controllers to make sure they get enough sleep on their days off," agency spokesman Gregor said. There also seems to be nothing controllers can do about it. Thanks to Reagan, they can't strike. And thanks to the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress, they're stuck with the nontract until 2011 — unless a Democratic president is elected in 2008 and decides to rip it up.

So for now, controllers will have to be content with pushing the envelope on the strict dress code that Blakey reinstated. Gregor said Blakey wanted to establish a professional workplace. "Attire in some facilities was getting extreme," he said. "There were people in shorts, flip-flops, and ratty T-shirts."

After Jeff Tilley showed up at Oakland Center last month in his kilt, the FAA immediately added kilts to the forbidden list, too. So he decided to wear a wig to work. "Hey, they never said, 'No hairpieces,'" he said, smiling. "Controllers are just trying to find ways to stand up and say, 'This is not right.'"

The FAA has since banned wigs as well.

Editor's note: The four controllers from Oakland Center who spoke on the record for this story did so as designated spokespersons for the air traffic controllers' union.

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