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Air-traffic controllers sleeping on the job?

At LaGuardia Airport's Marine Terminal in Queens, a

At LaGuardia Airport's Marine Terminal in Queens, a dedication ceremony was held for the new tower, followed by a tour of the tower, which cost $100 million to build and stands 233 feet off the ground. (Jan. 21, 2011) Photo Credit: Uli Seit

Will you sleep soundly on your next flight, knowing that the air-traffic controller charged with your safety might be doing the same?

Four air-traffic controllers were accused of nodding off on the job in three separate incidents, according to the FAA. What's to blame? Fatigue, apparently.

The controllers are forced to work staggered shifts, but I'm pretty darned tired, too, with two kids, a husband, a dog, a day job, freelance work, public appearances, errands to run, a garden to tend, laundry to wash and a pile of dishes in the sink. Funny, I haven't once fallen asleep at my desk. But even if I did, it wouldn't put anybody's life at risk.

So the FAA is adding a second controller to a couple dozen towers. While I agree it's a good idea to have backup for people performing such an important function, should it be because they're tired? Hold on, I'm going to run into my boss' office right now and ask for an assistant to stand at the ready in case I fall asleep.

He said "no."

And mumbled something about my being crazy.

So will the backup controllers solve the problem? Maybe, but it seems to me that's fixing the symptom while leaving the underlying disease untreated. How about -- oh, I dunno -- putting these people on regular shifts so they can sleep at home in bed where and when they're supposed to? Air-traffic controlling is up there among the most stressful jobs (right below travel blogger, if I'm not mistaken), so why add to the toll by making them work messed-up schedules?

At most airport towers, there's no bathroom available, according to The Associated Press. With only one controller on duty, if duty calls, the tower goes unattended. The nearest bathroom may be down a flight of stairs.

Yes, there should always be two controllers manning the fort. Maybe they should work fewer hours. And they should be well-rested and alert. Give them free coffee. And a bathroom break during which they can sit in peace knowing that someone else is covering.

And for goodness' sake: Let's recognize something must be wrong with their working conditions and fix it. I don't want to die because someone won't pony up an additional salary.

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