The head of the Federal Aviation Administration said Monday that he is "infuriated" that air traffic controllers have been caught snoozing on the job, but he insisted the government will not permit its controllers to nap during rest breaks to fight fatigue.
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt opened the first of a series of national meetings on the problem by addressing about 50 FAA employees at an air traffic control center about 30 miles southwest of Atlanta. He was joined by Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Since late March, the FAA has disclosed five cases of air traffic controllers sleeping at work.
The FAA also is investigating why two air traffic controllers in Lubbock, Texas, were out of contact for an extended period.
The latest incident happened Saturday morning at a busy regional radar facility that handles high altitude traffic for Florida, parts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean. Babbitt said sleeping worker workers have put a "real terrible blemish" on the FAA.
"None of us in this business can ... tolerate any of this," Babbitt said. "It absolutely has to stop. I was absolutely infuriated when I heard the first one or two. But as we began our review, it became even more frustrating and more disappointing to me to see what has happened here."
Babbitt said at the meeting that the scandal caused by sleeping air controllers has harmed the agency's credibility. He said passengers should never have to worry about whether a flight crew is rested, a plane is properly maintained or that air traffic controllers are on the job.
"That should never be a thought for anybody getting in an airplane in this country," he said. "And it hasn't been a thought. But unfortunately, we have raised that concern."
Journalists were escorted out of the meeting before air controllers had a chance to talk during a question-and-answer session.
Those controllers have long said they were concerned about tiring work conditions. More than half of air controllers told their union in a survey taken more than a year ago that they wanted to address quick turnaround times on shifts and other factors that increase fatigue, according to Rinaldi, the union president. He said the number of incidents shows there is a need for examining FAA policy.
"I think every single one of us feels the pain," he said. "We're the butt end of a joke on the late night talk show hosts when they talk about situations that are going on in the air traffic control system."
Babbitt said administrators bear some responsibility for the problem. He has ordered that air controllers get at least nine hours off between shifts, compared to the previous minimum of eight hours. To prevent fatigue, the agency has also ordered that controllers not work a midnight shift after a day off.
Federal authorities have rejected another proposed solution: on-the-job napping. A working group for the FAA and the union recommended allowing air controllers to sleep for as long as 2 hours on midnight shifts with a 30-minute break so they can fully wake up before returning to work. It also recommended allowing controllers to sleep during the 20- to 30-minute breaks they get every few hours.
"We don't pay people to sleep at work at the FAA," Babbitt said in an interview. "I don't know anybody that pays anybody to sleep unless you're buying people to have sleep studies."
Air controller Derek Bittman, who attended the meeting, said he has never slept at work. In a typical week, he works shifts starting at 3 p.m., 2 p.m., 8 a.m., 5:50 a.m. and 10 p.m. To perk himself up, he takes a break, gets a cup of coffee, walks a half mile, then drinks more coffee.
"When people say, 'I'm fatigued,' I want them to understand why," Bittman said.