There were some tense moments in our nation’s capital, last March 23rd, when several approaching aircraft could not reach the tower. It turns out, as reported by USA Today, that the lone supervisor had fallen asleep.
We know that it has not been unusual for one controller to work the midnight shift at many mid-size airports in the United States. There have been a number of problems in Miami where the FAA took the unusual step of doing a briefing for all tower controllers in which “the importance of reporting to work fit for duty” was emphasized.
But things are getting better. Only the smallest airports will now have single controllers monitoring landings and take-offs. But the best thing about the recent changes, according to controllers we’ve spoken to, is the end of the infamous “rattle shift”. The rattle involved a controller working five shifts on four days. Two shifts were combined on the fourth day – at least sixteen hours
It is interesting that FAA policy, for both pilots and air traffic controllers, has been “no napping while on duty.” Long-distance flight crews may certainly sleep in the cabin and there are always two flight deck crews for this purpose. But naps have never been accepted by the FAA. Some congressional members are very much in favor of napping and they would appear to have science on their side. The FAA position has been that no employee should ever be in a position to need a nap to continue handling aircraft. Nap or not, the days of lone controllers on duty appears to have ended. Now, at least, the possibility of Frisbee in the tower can be considered.