New Rules, And No Naps, For Air Traffic Controllers After several air traffic controllers were found sleeping on the job in April, the Federal Aviation Administration issued new rules that extend the required time off between shifts. The air traffic controllers' union has endorsed the changes, but critics argue the FAA should implement an organized napping system to prevent fatigue.
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New Rules, And No Naps, For Air Traffic Controllers

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New Rules, And No Naps, For Air Traffic Controllers

New Rules, And No Naps, For Air Traffic Controllers

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

After a number of air traffic controllers were found asleep on the job over the past few weeks, the Federal Aviation Administration issued new rules to extend time off between shifts from eight hours to nine, and at 26 airports around the country that previously relied on just one controller overnight, another one's been added.

But Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood rejected a proposal to build rest time into air traffic control shifts. He says arriving rested is part of the job and that he won't pay people to nap, though an FAA panel recommended just that.

If you're an air traffic controller, tell us about your job. What is it we don't understand? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the way ahead in Libya on the Opinion Page this week. But first, air traffic control, and we begin with FAA administrator Randy Babbitt, who's on the phone from an air traffic control facility outside Atlanta. He's traveling the country with Paul Rinaldi, the head of the air traffic controllers' union, which has endorsed the rule changes. And Administrator Babbitt, nice to have you with us today.

Mr. RANDY BABBITT (Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration): Well, it's nice to be here with you, Neal, thank you.

CONAN: And are these changes going to do the trick?

Mr. BABBITT: Well, they are certainly - you know, we put them in right away. We're considering a number of other changes, and we're doing a top-to-bottom study of not only our curriculum but how we manage fatigue and how we schedule.

CONAN: Well, research from Harvard doctor Charles Czeisler says a third to a half of the people who overnight fall asleep on the job once a week. We've heard just about five recent events. Do you think that this is - well, how would you describe the scale of this problem?

Mr. BABBITT: Well, I mean, we absolutely cannot and will not tolerate controllers sleeping on the job when they're supposed to be controlling airplanes. We're certainly working with the controllers and working with NATCA to take a good, hard look at some of the scheduling practices; some of the things we've done will provide a better sleep opportunity, rest opportunities for the controllers so that they can, in fact, arrive to work rested and ready to go to work.

CONAN: Your boss, though, the secretary of Transportation, we've just heard, flatly dismissed any suggestion of allowing building in some sleep time into the shift.

Mr. BABBITT: That's correct. There - you know, he was very clear about that. And we're absolutely in concert with him. The - what we're looking at with NATCA is to find ways in the scheduling practices that will allow people to do just as I suggested, arrive ready to work.

CONAN: You know this too: In January the FAA and National Air Traffic Controllers Association suggested that controllers take naps of up to two and a half hours on the overnight shift. Why not follow your own administration's recommendations?

Mr. BABBITT: Well, there's ways that we can address some of these things with scheduling practices. You know, we're certainly looking at a variety of things. And that whole report contained about a dozen items, and we're going to have to work our way through that with the controllers, which we're doing right now.

And we've taken the top two or three things that, you know, clearly would put people into positions where, you know, fatigue could manifest itself. That's why we've made the changes that we've made: minimum of nine hours, not allowed to swap into shift changes that would not provide that nine hours, and not going directly into a midnight shift following a day off. All of those had some evidence that they led to fatigue incidents.

CONAN: Now also, last week, there was the rule that forced airports to add a controller to towers that only use one on the overnight shifts, though by many accounts, there's a history of one controller taking control of two people's work while the other one takes a nap. Is there any way to control for that?

Mr. BABBITT: Well, you know, again, all of us - and I should make it very clear, the vast majority, 99.9 percent of the controllers do a fantastic job. They have a tough job, and they do it very, very well. I'm very proud of the work that they do.

None of us can tolerate unprofessional behavior, and one of the things that we're doing on this call to action, with the head of the union and myself, is to re-emphasize that we're all accountable to each other, we all have to, and the public demands from us, our utmost professional work. And that's one of the things that we're talking about out here is being professional in this job.

We want to maintain the great reputation that we have today, and we want to maintain that with the public.

CONAN: The safety record is important to note: It's outstanding.

Mr. BABBITT: It is outstanding, and the work that these - top to bottom, this is an incredibly skilled workforce and not just the controllers. There's thousands, tens of thousands of pieces of equipment that have to operate in order for us to operate the system. And the technical operations team that takes care of that equipment, they, too, you know, have to be on and make certain that all of this equipment is up and running perfectly, and they do it. They do a great job of it.

CONAN: We're talking with Randy Babbitt, the FAA administrator. As you know, several air traffic controllers were discovered to be asleep on the job in recent weeks. We're asking air traffic controllers to call in and tell us what is it about their job that we just don't get. 800-989-8255. Email us, And we'll start with Tony(ph). Tony's on the line with us from Miami.

TONY (Caller): Hi there, can you hear me?

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead.

TONY: Hi. I just wanted to call in and say that I appreciate Captain Babbitt's comments. I do think that, you know, pilots fall asleep, too. In fact, they're allowed to sleep on the job, on the extra-long, you know, 14-hour legs and so forth.

I don't - I'm not calling to make excuses for people that show up with a blankie and a pillow to work, but I'm a controller at Miami Center, and I've been there almost 27 years. And a lot of people I meet are really shocked to realize that we basically cover the entire clock in a 40-hour week. And I have to say that is the toughest part of the job.

In one respect, I think we like it because it offers a lot of flexibility...

CONAN: Tony, are you telling us that in one 40-hour week, obviously five eight-hour shifts, you're going to be covering the morning shift, the evening shift and the overnight?

TONY: Yes, sir.

CONAN: Is that right, Randy Babbitt?

Mr. BABBITT: It's possible. They bid. Some controllers with seniority - and I think Tony would agree - bid so they don't work those shifts. Some people prefer to work specific shifts. But yes, it's possible.

One of the patterns that we're looking at is what they call a two-two-one, where controllers work two shifts, and then they take a short day - instead of a 16-hour break, they take an eight-hour. That's one of the things that we're going to change. That's not going to be permitted now. It's going to be a minimum of nine hours, which is consistent with what pilots do, a nine-hour break, rest opportunity.

Of course, professionally, we want to make sure that they use that rest opportunity.

CONAN: And he called you Captain Babbitt. That's because you're a pilot.

Mr. BABBITT: Yes, I was. I flew commercially for almost 25 years.

CONAN: All right, Tony, thanks very much.

TONY: Sure. I'd just like to add one other thing, and that's that, you know, the scheduling, I think in general, the controllers like it. It offers us a lot of flexibility because, as you can well imagine, there's usually somebody less happy than you with the shift or the day off they have, which - and I think this is something that's being addressed, too, it allows you, certainly, a certain amount of flexibility in terms of being able to swap shifts and so forth.

CONAN: Okay.

TONY: And all right, well, thanks.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's go next to - this is Larry(ph), and Larry's with us from Sheridan in Oregon.

LARRY (Caller): Yes, thanks for taking my call. As a pilot myself with a brother who's a center controller, bottom line, it always comes down to personal responsibility when anyone shows up for work at any job.

If you are obligated to be there and work during those hours, you set yourself up well during your time off so that you're not sleeping there. And I think that putting two controllers in a tower might just be setting ourselves up where one can take a nap while the other one stands watch.

CONAN: There's normally two pilots in a plane, too, Larry, aren't there?

LARRY: Well, personally, right now, I'm a single pilot. But I've been flying two crew for the last - the previous 10 years, and yeah, that's true. That's - there's a whole other issue about the way the press has been reporting the safety of a landing without a tower controller. And I've probably got, I don't know, twelve or 13,000 landings, and I would say that a third of those easily are without a tower controller.

CONAN: Because it was at a field that doesn't have one?

LARRY: Yeah, absolutely, either uncontrolled field or going into a - a controlled field just means you have a tower - or going into a controlled field after-hours, where there are no tower controllers on duty.

CONAN: All right, Larry, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

LARRY: Thank you.

CONAN: Randy Babbitt, obviously there have been new regulations, too, about landing at a controlled tower without control.

Mr. BABBITT: Yes. You know, there are thousands of operations a day, you know, depending on traffic, at uncontrolled fields, and there's very clear procedures as to how to do that. Some airports don't have control towers. The volume of traffic decides when you get a tower, and the volume continues, the more traffic - the more staffing we have, the busier the airport gets.

Obviously, Atlanta airport has a lot more controllers than some, you know, smaller fields elsewhere in the country.

CONAN: And I also wanted to ask you, there are other issues that are coming up here. How did the FAA do in terms of budget cuts this year?

Mr. BABBITT: Well, we're, you know, certainly looking at some of the changes that were made. We were given some discretion, which was appreciated. We certainly need to be reauthorized. This is a series of extensions now has gone on 18 consecutive times, and what was just passed is simply a continuation of an earlier budget.

And there were some cuts off of that. They're very manageable, and I appreciate the consideration that both the House and the Senate gave us in that regard. But underlying all of this is the need for a real reauthorization.

We haven't had an authorized budget since '07. It makes it very difficult to manage the organization, to do long-term planning and to do an allocation of resources when you have to live on these very short-term - sometimes as short as three or four weeks, and in a couple of cases here, we've had five-day extensions.

And it's a lot of work, a lot of energy goes in, and I'll be, you know, very happy when we get a final reauthorization.

CONAN: And finally in terms of long-term planning, you have an entire generation of air traffic controllers who are about to retire.

Mr. BABBITT: You know, I think there's more urban myth behind that than reality. We do have, you know, a large number, but we have managed that fairly well. As a matter of fact, retirements are actually a lot lower than they were several years ago.

We were going through sort of a bow wave, if you would, of anywhere from fourteen to sixteen hundred retirements a year for a few years. That is a number -we're only going to retire about 450 controllers this year, and we're still training at the 700 to 800 level.

So we're hiring more than are retiring right now, and, you know, that - we've reached a period or a point of sort of steady-state environment.

CONAN: Randy Babbitt is the administrator of the FAA, and he joined us today by phone from an air traffic control facility outside Atlanta. Good luck with your tour, and we appreciate your time.

Mr. BABBITT: Well, thank you very much, Neal, and we appreciate the opportunity to get on. Obviously, safety is our number one focus, and this gives us an opportunity to revisit that and re-emphasize that with all of the great employees here at the FAA.

CONAN: Coming up after a quick break, more on what it's like to be an air traffic controller. Bob Richards knows. He spent 22 years guiding flights in and out of O'Hare. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan.

Every time you travel by plane, air traffic controllers across the country monitor and guide your flight from gate to gate. Sometimes, as recent incidents exposed, they're sleeping on the job.

The FAA, Transportation Department and air traffic controllers union are in the midst of working out to prevent those incidents in the future. There's a debate about scheduling and personal responsibility, too. You may know air traffic controller is frequently rattled off as one of the five or 10 most stressful jobs, but there's more to it than that.

If you're an air traffic controller, give us a call. We want to know: What is it about your job we don't get? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us from his home in Newburyport, Massachusetts, is Bob Richards, a retired air traffic controller who spent 22 years at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. He's also the author of "Secrets from the Tower." And nice of you to be with us today.

Mr. BOB RICHARDS (Author, "Secrets from the Tower"): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Happy Patriots Day.

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah well, they're doing the Boston marathon. There's people everywhere.

CONAN: I know you were listening to Randy Babbitt, the FAA administrator who was with us just a few moments ago. Do you think this decision to extend from eight to nine hours the minimum period between shifts, is that a step in the right direction? Is that going to be enough?

Mr. RICHARDS: Well, first of all, I'd like to say in my 30 years as an air traffic controller, 22 at O'Hare, of course, 25 as a controller, I'd have to say Mr. Babbitt is probably the most proactive administrator we've had. And being a pilot I'm sure didn't hurt any. And he's also been very exemplary in working with others. And I'm really optimistic to see that because that's something we haven't seen in a very long time.

And also, by the way, if he's still listening, tell him his secretary is to give my correct phone number so that he can call me back. It's not that I'm not calling him.

CONAN: Well, he can get in touch with us, and we'll give him the right number.

Mr. RICHARDS: That's right. That's right. But anyway, to answer your question, you know, it's a step in the right direction, okay. I mean, you've got to start somewhere, and the fact that we're even starting somewhere is a great sign because we haven't even got the ball rolling in the past.

Putting two controllers in the last 27 manned control towers, I don't know if people understand this, but that was a major move for the FAA and one that, you know, you don't often see happen as quickly as that happened.

And not only was it towards the issue of sleeping, but I think what people don't realize is - I thought personally it's a great move in terms of emergencies, which is I think what the public needs to know about.

And anytime we have an emergency, particular with just one person in a tower, you're asking one controller then to talk to the emergency, get the information about them and then vector them into the airport, while at the same time you're asking him to, you know, call out the emergency equipment, coordinate with the city and the other things that need to be done and also with the air traffic facilities involved.

So that's always been problematic with one person, and the only time, of course, you would see something like that happen is when it happens. And I'd hate to see that have to happen before we had to go to two people again on something like that.

So there's a greater benefit, I believe, besides the fact that, you know, Controller A looks over at Controller B in the tower and says: Hey, Bill, I think you're starting to fall asleep. Why don't you - are you okay? You know, that kind of stuff.

CONAN: Well, the 25 years you were a controller, did you ever see anybody sleep on the job?

Mr. RICHARDS: Did I ever see anybody sleep? No, I've never seen anybody sleeping at a tower. And, you know, it's problematic to try to stay awake. I understand that more than anybody else, working two nights, two days and a midnight. The rattler shift is a compressed work-week, and by the time you get to day four and five, you're pretty worn out.

And don't forget there's at least two times during the week where you're working 16 hours of the 24-hour cycle. So even though there is a break, you're still going to be working, you know, two-thirds of the day somewhere along the work-week, at least twice.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Jay Ali(ph): Ask an FAA official what the two-two-one is. It goes like this: first day back, four to 12, then the rest of the week three to 11, eight to four, seven to three, midnight shift. This schedule moves back a day every six weeks. The FAA never has and never will listen to ATCs. I'm a retired ATC who went on strike in '81 over issues related to fatigue.

Is that what he's describing? Is that what you just called the rattler shift?

Mr. RICHARDS: That is the rattler shift. And I understand what he's saying. But what happens is it's very problematic at a very busy place like Chicago, L.A., Atlanta, Dallas. At a smaller airport, yeah, you could probably do some flexibility with it.

But the reason it's hard to change at a major airport with a lot of traffic is, is if you go to, let's say, straight shifts, then you're going to have one group of controllers working all the traffic and another group of controllers hardly doing anything.

And then your proficiency will suffer greatly because some controllers are, you know, they're going to be working, and you're going to be burning them out while these other people aren't going to be doing hardly anything.

So that was the main reasons for the rattler at the busier facilities. So until somebody can come up with a way of addressing that and equalizing the workload, that's the other thing you have to do when you consider that.

But at the smaller places, depending on where you work, I can see a lot more flexibility with the rattler as opposed to what they do at the major towers and stuff.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in. This is Joe(ph), Joe with us from Boston.

JOE (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

JOE: I just wanted to - I'm an air traffic controller in training, and just wanted to comment on the recent decision not to allow air traffic controllers to take breaks - to take naps while they're on their break.

I know that's been the policy for a while, and it's extremely frustrating. We get these breaks that we need, one way or another and the time is ours to do with, you know, to do what we wish. But we're not allowed to take a break, and it seems given the situation at hand, the FAA should change the policy and allow us to take naps on our breaks. It's the safest thing to do. And if that's what we feel we need to do to be ready to go back to work at the end of our break, we should be able to do it.

CONAN: How long is the break?

JOE: They vary but usually about half an hour.

CONAN: About half an hour. It's hard to get a decent nap in a half an hour, but I wonder, Bob Richards, what do you think?

Mr. RICHARDS: I think the reality of what he's saying is true. I mean, for the 22 years I worked at O'Hare, you could always see people that were getting towards the end of their work week, as soon as they got off position, and we'd be hour-on, hour-off, hour-on, 45-minutes-off, they'd go lay down on the couch.

Now if you want to call them closing their eyes transcendental meditation or whatever, I suppose you can do that, but the bottom line is people are going to relax, they're going to watch TV, they're going to do what they do. And I don't think we need people to walk into a break room and say: By the way, are your eyes closing at this time?

I don't see that happening, I mean, realistically. But you know, maybe I'm not...

JOE: I just wanted to add: It just seems like it's - given the political realities, when I heard Ray LaHood in an interview earlier this week, and he was asked this question, his response was very clear: We will not pay air traffic controllers to take naps.

And that's a - it's a political stance because given the, like, government employees have been under attack recently in salaries and whatnot, it's just the idea that air traffic controllers are being paid to sleep is completely unacceptable, but that's not the reality of it. We're being paid to be competent and capable and ready to do the job, and if we need to take a 15, 20-minute nap to be able to do that, then we should be allowed to.

CONAN: And Joe, what about his other point, though, that being rested is part of the job, too? When you...

JOE: Absolutely, and I'm not trying to say that, you know, we don't have a obligation or a personal responsibility, but if we're on the job, and we get off-position, and we feel tired, the safest thing for everybody involved is for us to take a nap and then come back to position.

CONAN: All right, Joe, thanks very much for the call.

Mr. RICHARDS: Can I interject something there, if I might?

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. RICHARDS: I want to tell you something, and this is - I can say this from a long-term, and Joe sounds like he's just starting out as an air traffic controller, young air traffic controller. But, you know, I survived O'Hare. I made it to retirement, and then I got outfitted with a defibrillator, okay? Six of my co-workers died during the time I was there, four of them with sudden cardiac death; two of them were pancreatic cancer.

And you might say: Well, people die, that happens, at their job. They were 29, 30, 38, 39, 43 and 49 years old. Who speaks up for them?

And since I've retired, three more have died, all sudden cardiac death. With the exception of one of those people that died of cardiac death, none of them had previous symptoms.

Stress is the most underrated, misunderstood factor in life, and that's more of a long-term problem that we're going to have to address. And obviously, controllers, when you're in your 20s and 30s, and I've told people this many times, you feel like you can conquer the world, you're invincible, and all of a sudden, in your 40s, you're starting to see a cardiologist. So where didn't I pace myself, and what wasn't I doing along the way?

And that's another big question, and that's something I wanted to ask Mr. Babbitt before he left, but, you know, maybe I'll get a chance some other time to do that. But at least I know I've got somebody there who's listening and can react to stuff.

CONAN: Let's go next to Chris(ph) and Chris calling from Tucson.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi there. I retired in '07, so some of my perceptions of this problem that I perceive may be somewhat outdated. But in '07 when I retired, the first-line supervisors that the controllers worked under actually had a policy, a written policy, with regards to personal responsibility.

If you, regardless of your best intentions, did not get a full night's sleep, did not get adequate sleep prior to your shift, you were technically not allowed to call in on sick leave for the shift.

And it puts you in a Catch-22 situation because you're trying to do the right thing and keep the system safe by not working on a day you didn't get sleep, regardless of your best intent, and you can't take a vacation day because there may not be enough staffing to allow them to give you the day off.

So you're forced to come in with no sleep and hope for the best and hope that you stay awake and don't get fired. So these are the kinds of things that the FAA has done. I could list more of them, but I'm not going to keep your time.

CONAN: Okay.

CHRIS: These are the kinds of things that happen that I saw the latter part of my career in the FAA.

CONAN: Bob Richards, should lack of sleep be a reason to be able to call in sick?

Mr. RICHARDS: Well, certainly - be honest with you, I know most people I work - particularly at a place like O'Hare, where you have to be working at 110 percent, if they were under the weather or they felt that they couldn't give their all, that would probably be a reason for them to call in sick. Yeah. I mean, that's - but at that type of feverish pace that we work at, you don't want - you want to be on your best game, and those people understand that.

And the great thing about O'Hare is the management, you know, particularly the supervisors and the managers, virtually 95 percent of them were all O'Hare controllers and still work the airplanes. They have to be able to work the airplanes to be able to tell the controllers what to do. So we're all on the same page when that happens.

I think the problem comes in is when you start getting people involved who don't understand the issues from that standpoint and you're trying to explain it to them, and they just want to kind of go by, you know, the book of the rules and not understand the, you know, the extenuating circumstance involved.

CHRIS: But this was FAA policy, is my point. I mean, this wasn't just, you know, I mean I guess they can tweak the letter of the law to some degree, but I was on numerous times showed the binder that the supervisors had that technically they were not allowed to give you sick leave if you call in sick and you didn't get rest. And I just think that shows somewhat the philosophy of the FAA, I mean with regards to sleep issues.

I mean, we had a memo come out at one point saying that if you were asleep on your break or had the appearance of being asleep, that they could suspend you or fire you. They even went so far as to say that if you got off a nightshift or any shift and you were off duty, you were not allowed to sleep in your car.

So if you got off at 6 in the morning and were just dead tired and you wanted to get a quick snooze before you had an hour drive home, you couldn't do it in the parking lot.

I mean, it's such backward thinking, and maybe it's a political backing. I don't know. But it was just a crazy policy, and I just don't know if that still guides the FAA.

CONAN: Do you know if that's still in effect, Bob Richards?

Mr. RICHARDS: No. Well, I can't answer his question because at O'Hare things were a lot different than the rest of the country because we were so into moving airplanes. Our whole job about moving airplane, we never got into the other little almost - and I hate to say - I don't want to say they're trivial issues, but we were so into working airplanes that it never dawned on us that we're going to - how we're going to come to work. If we weren't able to give our best, we didn't try.

And also supervisors, you know, that work at O'Hare, and managers there, they know that. They can see that. They can see if somebody is having a bad day. They can see just by virtue of the way they work some days where they're at. And it's not hard to do when you're dealing with, you know, a busy place like that. But at a smaller place like where he's talking about, I understand people have got a lot of time and they're kind of looking at things a little bit more in detail. We never had that luxury because we were too busy working with the airlines and just moving airplanes.

CONAN: We're talking with former air traffic controller Bob Richards, the author of "Secrets from the Tower." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This email question from David: Being a pilot, I'm eternally grateful for our controllers. I am curious, though, how do controlling agencies around the world deal with the sleep problem?

Do you have an answer for him?

Mr. RICHARDS: Personally, no, I don't know. I've talked to some German controllers, and they - again, they do like to do straight shifts when they don't have to do the rattler, but again, that's because it comes down to that issue we talked about earlier, spreading out the workload. If you want to spread out the workload in the busy places, you're stuck with the rattler. And if you're in a less busy place, you could probably be a lot more flexible.

But you know, some places have a 35-hour workweek, and that, of course, was something that was proposed and actually agreed to back in '82 in that original contract dispute that the - between the government and PATCO.

And of course, you know, other things fell apart, but that was actually an agreed-upon condition. Would that help? Well, you know, I don't know. I know how P.R.-wise that would be, but of course that would help.

But I - my issue has always been, how do you measure stress? How do you measure fatigue? And no one's ever really done that. Except now when you take it to the extreme, like at a place like O'Hare, I've seen it firsthand, and when I see, you know, people dying at a very young age, it causes me concern, and you know, for all those people across the nation.

CONAN: Let's get Francis(ph) in. Francis on the line from San Diego.

FRANCIS (Caller): Hi. How's it going?

CONAN: Okay.

FRANCIS: Well, I'm an airline pilot. I live in San Diego and I'm actually based out of Miami, Florida, which is a problem onto itself. But, you know...

CONAN: Wait a minute. Come back on that one more time?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FRANCIS: I'm a - I live in San Diego, but I - my home base as far as where I fly all my flights is out of, is out of Miami, Florida.

CONAN: So you fly across the country to start to fly?

FRANCIS: Correct. Yes.

CONAN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FRANCIS: And I kind of go back to where the captain was talking before about, you know, the nine hours of rest and all that. You know, I don't know if the general public realizes that the rest that airline pilots - and I'm not sure how it works with the air traffic controllers, but I would assume being that the regulations are written the way they are, it would be similar - that rest begins 15 minutes, at least for an airline pilot, once the door opens. I don't - door of the airplane.

So I don't know, you know, the last time you were at an airport, but I'm pretty sure it takes you 15 minutes to get out of the airport and to your car, let alone, you know, get home and actually get some rest.

CONAN: Fifteen minutes would be real good.

FRANCIS: Yeah. Fifteen minutes would be fantastic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FRANCIS: So I mean, routinely we'll get these, you know, nine-hour minimum rests, and sometimes when we're out to station - out of station or something like that, you know - that a crew overnight - that nine hours includes, you know, maybe the hour-long cab ride to whatever, you know, hotel you're staying in that day.

CONAN: And I don't mean to cut you off, Francis, but I wanted to give Bob Richards a chance to reply. Would the nine hours for an air traffic controller include - start the second you came off shift?

Mr. RICHARDS: I'm sure it does because it will be scheduled nine hours apart, and I know that sounds good. And it is - any little bit of help is help, I suppose.

But look at it this way. You know, you get off work and, Neal, when we were doing the eight-hour differences between shifts, it's like he said. You get off of work - now, unless you're going to the parking lot and pulling off on your helicopter, putting - and setting it down in your backyard, you are not going to get more than seven hours of sleep. And don't forget you have to go home and you have to unwind, and you're going to try to sleep at a time like 3, 4, 5, 6 o'clock, you know, in the evening when you're not ever used to doing it.

CONAN: And who knows, you might even want to have a meal.

Mr. RICHARDS: You might even want to have dinner. That's right. And then on top of it, you have to get up and prepare to go to work, and you have to have that drive, whether it's a half hour to an hour, depending on who you are, unless you've got that helicopter, of course, then you could probably cut the time down a little bit.

But for the most part, you're never, never going to get more than seven hours of sleep, no matter how you slice it, and some people are going to get less, based on where they live or...

CONAN: And...

Mr. RICHARDS: ...what their habits are.

CONAN: Francis, thanks very much for the call, and Bob Richards, thanks again for your time today.

Mr. RICHARDS: You bet.

CONAN: Next up, Rajan Menon joins us on The Opinion Page. With fighting at a virtual stalemate in Libya, he's looking down a road to possible outcomes. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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