Air Traffic Controllers Not Solely Responsible for On-the-Job Exhaustion

COMMENTARY | The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is now moving to add a second air traffic controller to almost 30 airports around the country that only have a single controller during midnight shifts. An air traffic controller fell asleep at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Reno, Nev., Wednesday and couldn’t be contacted by anyone while a medical flight needed to land. That controller was out of communication for just over 15 minutes.

Similar events have occurred since the start of the year, and most have involved sleeping air traffic controllers. Sure, the controller is the individual who fell asleep, but all the blame cannot be placed upon his shoulders only.

Air Traffic Control Is No Easy Task

Working as an air traffic controller just might be one of the most strenuous jobs in the world. During each shift, a controller might end up managing over 100 planes per hour by himself. The hours are long, the schedule is always changing, and controllers don’t exactly get great accommodations. Without a doubt, most workers are overworked and forced to go about their jobs for long shifts.

There have been various incidents involving errors committed by air traffic controllers. In fact, there have been numerous other events since the beginning of the year. For instance, two jets were forced to land on their own when a traffic controller fell asleep at one of Washington’s airports. Controllers sleeping on the job isn’t new. Apparently, it is actually more common than the FAA or anyone else would like to admit.

So why do controllers make these egregious errors, like falling asleep on the job? There are plenty of factors that contribute to such events, so it isn’t a black and white situation. With that in mind, here are some of the main reasons controllers can fall asleep and incidents can happen:

Long Shifts, Heavy Schedules

Air traffic controllers don’t necessarily have set schedules each week, so they could work tons of different shifts that might even overlap in some cases. Coupled with long hours, controllers don’t exactly have an enjoyable profession. On top of that, air traffic controllers regularly work on holidays throughout the year, so they don’t have tons and tons of free time. Many controllers suffer from fatigue regularly due to their jobs.

High-Stress Working Conditions

Undoubtedly, sitting in the tower for hours on end directing air traffic isn’t the most relaxing thing to do. It can all get pretty stressful, even for the most calm and calculating individual. On that note, most people wouldn’t be able to direct hundreds of flights during an overtime shift, especially a late night shift. Air traffic controllers face these conditions on a regular basis.


Most of the incidents involving air traffic controllers have involved lone controllers falling asleep when nobody else was there to do anything about it. Of course, controllers regularly work at night by themselves without anyone else in the tower, which is just begging for trouble. Controllers may not deal with as many flights during the late hours, but that also means they are far more likely to nod off for a few minutes or longer. Independence isn’t always a good or efficient choice.

Whose fault is it?

In the end, some of the blame does rest upon the shoulders of the air traffic controllers, but they are often used as scapegoats by their superiors. Truthfully, the blame rests upon the administrators who place a single worker in the traffic towers at airports, expecting nothing to ever go wrong. The conditions air traffic controllers are forced to work under are unfavorable for anybody and do nothing but increase the likelihood that most controllers are exhausted and ready for sleep while on the job.

For more information, visit Sleeping controllers prompt FAA to add late-night staff and From Wall Street to Control Tower.