There's been a lot of media coverage over the past few weeks about air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job, specifically those working the so-called graveyard shift (approximately 11PM to 7AM). While the media coverage makes it seem as if this is a new problem, I have a feeling it's far more common than the FAA is willing to admit.
Working the midnight shift is tough. Not everyone can do it. It takes a certain amount of discipline to make it work. I know this from personal experience as I worked the graveyard shift for a number of years when I was employed in the defense industry.
The FAA had controllers working swing shifts, meaning their work schedules rotated so they worked all three shifts over a period of weeks or months. That's a formula for chronic fatigue, higher absenteeism, and higher accident rates. Put another way, it's a formula for disaster, particularly for such a critical job like air traffic control.
Instead, controllers should be working the same shift all the time. It makes it easier to adapt to the off hours.
When I worked graveyard shift you could always tell when someone new to the shift would make it or not. All you had to do was ask them when they slept. If the answer was anything other than “I go to sleep at the same time every day” you knew they wouldn't last long. That was the secret to surviving the graveyard shift: going to sleep at exactly the same time every day, followed only by making sure you got enough sleep. For me it was going to bed around 8:30 in the morning and waking up sometime between 3 and 4 in the afternoon. Some of my co-workers would bed down some time after noon and wake sometime during the early evening. It was different for all of us.
What the FAA has done is make it almost impossible to set a schedule that would allow their controllers to get enough sleep. Constantly changing shifts makes it impossible. Physiologists claim it takes approximately one day for every hour of time 'shift' in our wake/sleep cycles. That means if you go from a day shift to graveyard shift, it will take a little over a week to adjust to the new sleep time (assuming bed time is now sometime around 8 in the morning rather than midnight). If the shift changes every week, then you will never adjust to the changed hours and you will be tired all the time.
Even if the shift change is on a monthly basis, there will still be at least one week where everyone will be 'off' until they adjust. It plain doesn't work that well.
Maybe it's time for the FAA to change how they do things.