Friday, April 15, 2011

Wake me up when it's time to go home

Based upon recent news reports, one could hardly be faulted for wondering if narcolepsy is an epidemic rampaging through the controller workforce. Before anyone takes that comment seriously, let me state that I'm being facetious: Sleeping on the job is a very serious offense for an air traffic controller, and those whose naps made the news recently can expect to face the consequences, which can be as severe as losing one's job.

That said, let me share a few observations:
  • In every tower cab I've ever worked or visited, you can find a coffee maker. At LAX, we have two.
  • Did you ever notice a store display of one of those 5-hour energy formulas and wonder who buys that stuff by the case? Some of my coworkers, that's who.
  • Besides the usual Coke, Diet Coke, Mountain Dew, and so forth, our Coke machine has Red Bull and Monster drinks.
  • We are subject to random drug testing for alcohol and the usual assortment of illegal drugs, but caffeine, guarana, taurine, carnitine, and the other ingredients in the various stimulant drinks and supplements are okay.
Obviously, we're not restricted from using stimulant-type products, and there's no shortage of them at many facilities. Why do our controllers feel the need for these things and yet still make the news because they're asleep on the job? What the heck is going on here?

Simply put, many of us work schedules that have us staying late, coming in early, and working overnight -- all in one work week. As an example, here's one of my recent work weeks:
  • Day 1: 5 pm to 1 am
  • Day 2: 3 pm to 11 pm
  • Day 3: 7 am to 3 pm
    • (note that this shift starts 8 hours after the previous one ended)
  • Day 4: 6 am to 2 pm
  • Day 5: 10 pm to 6 am
    • (note that this shift also starts 8 hours after the previous one ended)
In addition, there's a reasonably good chance that on one of my 'weekend' days off I'll be scheduled or get called in for an overtime shift. Which could be any shift - whatever's needed that day to fill the gap in the schedule. Some of my coworkers have a four-day schedule comprised of ten-hour workdays, which might look like this:
  • Day 1: 4 pm to 2 am
  • Day 2: 2 pm to midnight
  • Day 3: 8 am to 4 pm
    • (note that this shift starts 8 hours after the previous one ended)
  • Day 4: 4am to 2 pm
Somebody working this schedule ostensibly has a three-day weekend, but also faces the possibility of working two days of overtime in one work week. I was chatting with someone just the other day to whom this happened: He ended up with a 58-hour work week.

We are required to have eight hours 'rest period' between shifts, and the schedule adheres to the letter of the rule, as seen above. But I don't live at the airport, although it may feel like it sometimes; nor do any of my coworkers. So figure in a commute home after each shift and another commute to work before the next. An hour commute in LA is nothing special, and we have a number of people for whom only an hour each way is a good day. Thus, for most of us that eight-hour 'rest period' actually equates to maybe four or five hours of sleep.

Even if someone can manage on that amount of sleep, this sort of schedule wreaks havoc with your circadian rhythm. One day you're supposed to be up until one or two in the morning; a couple of days later you're having to get up not much later than that. This pretty much whacks your body clock. Calling in sick isn't an option either, as we have specifically been told that 'lack of sleep' is not an acceptable reason for not coming to work.

The net result is that most controllers are at times fatigued on the job, working with a sleep deficit, and would probably be diagnosed with having a sleep disorder. Couple that with the reduced amount of airplanes to talk to in the wee hours of the morning (maybe one or two an hour in some places), along with the ban on any sort of non-work related material in the operating quarters (no radio/magazines/crosswords/Angry Birds/etc), and it's amazing that all of us aren't asleep on the mids. The one place I've been where this was not a problem was Memphis, Tennessee -- the home of Fedex. The midshift at Memphis is just as busy, if not more so, than during the day. There is a crew of controllers who work nothing but that shift, every night. During the time I was in Memphis, no one ever had a problem with nodding off in the middle of the night -- we were way too busy!

There have been plenty of studies that show that this is pretty much the worst possible way to run a schedule for people who need to be alert at all times while they're on duty. So why do we do this?

Basically, I believe it's because it allows a longer 'weekend'. If I get off the mid at 6 am on my last day and am not due back to work until 5 pm on my subsequent first day, the result is that I get what sort of feels like a three-day weekend. Those working the schedule of ten-hour days really do get a three day weekend. That is honestly the only advantage I perceive from the way we're doing this. And up until now, pretty much everybody has 'bought into' doing it this way. We all are aware that it's not ideal, but that longer weekend is awfully attractive, even if we have to sleep for half of it. Because of course we don't sleep through half of it - there's stuff to do, if for no other reason than because you don't have time to do it during the week.

What's the solution? Everybody is asking that question right now. My guess is that there will be some sort of mandate requiring longer breaks between shifts. Maybe a limitation on how many different shift start times one person can be assigned within the same work week. Possibly even a requirement that all the assigned shifts within one work week not vary by more than a few (say two or three) hours. Or maybe we should just require all the planes to fly during the day, and let everybody go home at night.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know how ATC's stay alert with that kind of schedule. An ever-changing body clock. It's insane. Also I was amazed by how FAA treated one guy. They suspended him and then acknowledged that new controller schedules needed to be developed. I think they should be suspending the people who came up with these schedules!