An air traffic controller at Washington DC’s Reagan National Airport fell asleep on the job the other night, and since he or she was the only controller on duty in the wee hours, a couple of planes had to land without instructions from the ground. While I love hopping on a plane and jetting off to some far-flung destination, I’m a slightly nervous flyer, and people in the air industry sleeping on the job displeases the slightly nervous flyer part of me. I think, when in the air, we must all work in concert: The pilots operate the big flying computer, the ATC people keep an eye on all of the big flying computers in the sky and make sure none of them run into each other, and I keep my particular flight aloft by sheer force of will while Mother Nature does her best to make it crash. I’ve saved many hundreds of lives this way. You’re all welcome.
Of course, it’s not just the ATC people who seem to like to take naps at work. In the last few years I know I’ve heard at least a couple of stories about pilots nodding off and overshooting their destination airports by a few hundred miles. “Not to worry,” haughty I’m-not-afraid-to-fly person tells me, “The computer is flying the thing anyway.”
Well, sure, that’s great; really fills me with confidence. My damn computer at work can barely handle playing an MP3 file half the time, and I’m supposed to trust that the big flying one won’t just randomly decide that it’s had enough of keeping the airspeed up and the wings level and instead send us all cartwheeling into the Atlantic? Besides, even if it keeps doing its job, when we’ve bypassed our destination airport by an hour and have to turn back, Mr. Computer is going to have a hard time being much help when the plane runs out of fuel.
I guess my feeling on this thing is: Is it really that hard to stay awake at work? And why is it all of these airplane-related folks have such difficulty keeping their eyes open? The radio station I work for is fairly unique in this day and age of radio-ruined-by-corporate-incompetence-and-greed in that we actually have a human being at the controls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You know what Job #1 is of the person who has to do the overnight shift? Stay awake! It’s really not that hard to simply remain conscious. If the job of an overnight ATC in DC is so boring, then have some coffee or pace around the control tower. Juggle for all I care. Just stay awake and pay a modicum of attention.
It’s a little different for pilots in that you can’t pace around the cockpit of a plane, but the coffee suggestion holds. Try looking out the window at the pretty clouds or the farm fields below, or chat with your co-pilot. Or you each could take turns napping if you just absolutely can’t possibly stay awake while you’re, ahem, at work. I’ve been on lots of flights, and been dog-tired, but you know what I’ve never done? Fallen asleep! You know why? Because I consider it my job to help keep that plane in the air, and I’m not even getting paid! Someone’s got to keep the prayer hotline open at all times until we’re safely back on terra firma where we belong, and that person is me.