NATS realise the importance of good sleep for their controllers’ alertness – but not for those overflown at night?

In an article on the importance of sleep (and of taking naps in the day, if people need them) the BBC happens to have focused on NATS (he UK’s national air traffic control service). They say how important it is for their air traffic controllers to not be tired, and get enough shut-eye. NATS says staying alert for them “can be a matter of life or death” and they have an “entire department dedicated to this question” because they are “responsible for one of the busiest stretches of airspace in the world, over London.” At their centre at Swanwick there is a “dormitory room where those on night duty are encouraged to get two hours’ kip in the early hours.”We want them to be at the very top of their game at 5-6am, when the arrivals are starting to come into Heathrow.” And that is all great. Except it ignores the inconvenient fact that the work NATS does is routing planes late at night (sometimes until 11.30pm or midnight) at Heathrow, and again from 5am (with a few even before 5am.  That is sleeping time for most people living under flight paths, whose sleep is being disturbed.  By the activities of NATS. The negative impacts of not getting enough sleep are many, including poor concentration, depression, reduced alertness, less good memory – and many other impacts.  Ironic?



The NATS website says, on sleep:

Noise not only has the potential to cause disturbance and annoyance to those overflown. In areas of very high noise exposure there is evidence of links relating aircraft noise to health impacts, such as sleep disturbance, cardiovascular impacts, and potential impacts on memory and learning in children.

Owing to the relatively small airspace available for a large number of UK flights, noise disturbances can sometimes be unavoidable. However, at NATS we are doing our part where we impact airspace noise. We aim to reduce this impact by working with communities, airlines and airports to understand the issues and find the best solution for the highest number of people.


  • SEL is the sound exposure level of an aircraft event, measured in dBA of a one second burst of steady noise that contains the same total A-weighted sound energy as the whole event. SEL is often used to characterise the likelihood of sleep disturbance relating to aircraft noise as research has found that single event metrics are a better predictor of sleep disturbance than long term average noise metrics such as Leq16h


From a longer article

How to nap successfully at work [and how NATS do it …]



extracts from a longer article ….

“The more sleep deprived we are, the less accurately we are able to judge the effects it has on our performance,” says Dr Dautovich.


But is there more to keeping your mental edge in the office than just getting a good night’s sleep?

To find out, I visited an office where staying alert can be a matter of life or death.

Nats, the UK’s national air traffic control service, has an entire department dedicated to this question. It is understandable when you consider it is responsible for one of the busiest stretches of airspace in the world, over London.
“One thing we’re very, very aware of is that a controller is more likely to have an incident either when they are very busy, or they’re very quiet,” says Neil May of Nats.
Nats maintains that optimal mental balance between boredom and overload by controlling the number of aircraft each employee manages.
I meet Neil at Nats’ control room in Swanwick, a cavernous space reminiscent of an aircraft hangar that has been designed to minimise distraction.
It is lit 24/7 with fake daylight, and the only sound is the gentle hubbub of hundreds of controllers perched at screens speaking over headsets to the pilots scattered across the skies of southern England.

Staff work in teams of two, not just to check on each other but also because the social interaction helps keep their minds active.And at least every two hours they are required to take a “30-minute responsibility free break”, says Neil; a retreat to the cafe or a short nap perhaps.

air traffic controllersImage copyrightNATS

Image caption    Air traffic controllers are encouraged to take breaks and go for short naps

Nats has a proactive attitude towards sleep. Swanwick has a dormitory room where those on night duty are encouraged to get two hours’ kip in the early hours.”We want them to be at the very top of their game at 5-6am, when the arrivals are starting to come into Heathrow,” says Neil.

It is an attitude that Dr Dautovich [sleep academic at the US National Sleep Foundation]
would admire.
Like Bhim Suwastoyo  [reporter for Agence France Presse in its Jakarta bureau in Indonesia] and those at Nats, she too sings the praises of the afternoon snooze. “We’re still stuck in this perception of sleep as a luxury,” she says, instead of seeing it as “a positive health behaviour with beneficial outcomes for productivity”.
In other words, perhaps napping at work shouldn’t be treated as a disciplinary offence.

Some of the negative impacts of sleep loss

Taken from “10 Things to Hate About Sleep Loss”

This article is a bit “tabloid”  and American, but it sets out a lot of the issues.  

Extracts below

By Camille Peri
From WebMD

You know lack of sleep can make you grumpy and foggy. …. Here are 10 surprising — and serious — effects of sleep loss.

1. Sleepiness Causes Accidents

Sleep deprivation was a factor in some of the biggest disasters in recent history: the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, and others.

But sleep loss is also a big public safety hazard every day on the road. Drowsiness can slow reaction time as much as driving drunk. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that fatigue is a cause in 100,000 auto crashes and 1,550 crash-related deaths a year in the U.S. The problem is greatest among people under 25 years old.

Studies show that sleep loss and poor-quality sleep also lead to accidents and injuries on the job. In one study, workers who complained about excessive daytime sleepiness had significantly more work accidents, particularly repeated work accidents. They also had more sick days per accident.

2. Sleep Loss Dumbs You Down

Sleep plays a critical role in thinking and learning. Lack of sleep hurts these cognitive processes in many ways. First, it impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. This makes it more difficult to learn efficiently.

Second, during the night, various sleep cycles play a role in “consolidating” memories in the mind. If you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t be able to remember what you learned and experienced during the day.

3. Sleep Deprivation Can Lead to Serious Health Problems

Sleep disorders and chronic sleep loss can put you at risk for:

Heart disease
Heart attack
Heart failure
Irregular heartbeat
High blood pressure

According to some estimates, 90% of people with insomnia — a sleep disorder characterized by trouble falling and staying asleep — also have another health condition.

4. Lack of Sleep Kills Sex Drive

Sleep specialists say that sleep-deprived men and women report lower libidos and less interest in sex. Depleted energy, sleepiness, and increased tension may be largely to blame.
5. Sleepiness Is Depressing

Over time, lack of sleep and sleep disorders can contribute to the symptoms of depression. In a 2005 Sleep in America poll, people who were diagnosed with depression or anxiety were more likely to sleep less than six hours at night.

The most common sleep disorder, insomnia, has the strongest link to depression. In a 2007 study of 10,000 people, those with insomnia were five times as likely to develop depression as those without. In fact, insomnia is often one of the first symptoms of depression.

Insomnia and depression feed on each other. Sleep loss often aggravates the symptoms of depression, and depression can make it more difficult to fall asleep. On the positive side, treating sleep problems can help depression and its symptoms, and vice versa.

6. Lack of Sleep Ages Your Skin

Most people have experienced sallow skin and puffy eyes after a few nights of missed sleep. But it turns out that chronic sleep loss can lead to lackluster skin, fine lines, and dark circles under the eyes.

When you don’t get enough sleep, your body releases more of the stress hormone cortisol. In excess amounts, cortisol can break down skin collagen, the protein that keeps skin smooth and elastic.

Sleep loss also causes the body to release too little human growth hormone. When we’re young, human growth hormone promotes growth. As we age, it helps increase muscle mass, thicken skin, and strengthen bones.

“It’s during deep sleep — what we call slow-wave sleep — that growth hormone is released,” says sleep expert Phil Gehrman, PhD. “It seems to be part of normal tissue repair — patching the wear and tear of the day.”

7. Sleepiness Makes You Forgetful

Trying to keep your memory sharp? Try getting plenty of sleep.

In 2009, American and French researchers determined that brain events called “sharp wave ripples” are responsible for consolidating memory. The ripples also transfer learned information from the hippocampus to the neocortex of the brain, where long-term memories are stored. Sharp wave ripples occur mostly during the deepest levels of sleep.

8. Losing Sleep Can Make You Gain Weight

When it comes to body weight, it may be that if you snooze, you lose. Lack of sleep seems to be related to an increase in hunger and appetite, and possibly to obesity. According to a 2004 study, people who sleep less than six hours a day were almost 30% more likely to become obese than those who slept seven to nine hours.

Recent research has focused on the link between sleep and the peptides that regulate appetite. “Ghrelin stimulates hunger and leptin signals satiety to the brain and suppresses appetite,” says Siebern. “Shortened sleep time is associated with decreases in leptin and elevations in ghrelin.”

Not only does sleep loss appear to stimulate appetite. It also stimulates cravings for high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods. Ongoing studies are considering whether adequate sleep should be a standard part of weight loss programs.

9. Lack of Sleep May Increase Risk of Death (with 5 hours sleep per night)

In the “Whitehall II Study,” British researchers looked at how sleep patterns affected the mortality of more than 10,000 British civil servants over two decades. The results, published in 2007, showed that those who had cut their sleep from seven to five hours or fewer a night nearly doubled their risk of death from all causes. In particular, lack of sleep doubled the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

10. Sleep Loss Impairs Judgment, Especially About Sleep

Lack of sleep can affect our interpretation of events. This hurts our ability to make sound judgments because we may not assess situations accurately and act on them wisely.

Sleep-deprived people seem to be especially prone to poor judgment when it comes to assessing what lack of sleep is doing to them. In our increasingly fast-paced world, functioning on less sleep has become a kind of badge of honor. But sleep specialists say if you think you’re doing fine on less sleep, you’re probably wrong. And if you work in a profession where it’s important to be able to judge your level of functioning, this can be a big problem.

“Studies show that over time, people who are getting six hours of sleep, instead of seven or eight, begin to feel that they’ve adapted to that sleep deprivation — they’ve gotten used to it,” Gehrman says. “But if you look at how they actually do on tests of mental alertness and performance, they continue to go downhill. So there’s a point in sleep deprivation when we lose touch with how impaired we are.”