updated 9/8/2006 7:38:10 AM ET 2006-09-08T11:38:10

Air traffic controllers who nap during break times could be suspended for up to 10 days under rules the Federal Aviation Administration has begun enforcing nationally since the deadly crash of Comair Flight 5191.

FAA workers were notified of the stricter enforcement Saturday, less than a week after the Kentucky crash that killed 49 of 50 people on board.

The control tower operator working at the time got only two hours of sleep during a nine-hour break between shifts on the day leading up to the Aug. 27 crash. Investigators say he turned his back on the airfield when the pilots took off from the wrong runway.

National guidelines against napping aren't new, but workers at several local control towers and regional radar centers previously enjoyed the right to doze off during breaks through separate agreements they worked out with their supervisors. However, the new federal rules imposed by the FAA on Saturday void those local agreements, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

"Even though they're on break, they can be called back to work at any time," Brown said. "If they had to be called back to work traffic and they had been sleeping, they would be groggy."

The opposite effect?
Union representatives argue the policy will actually have the opposite effect.

During some late-night shifts, they say, a controller could go two to three hours without needing to watch a single plane. They are allowed to go to a break room, known as a "ready room," during this time to rest up for the intensive work.

Some would read books or watch TV while others would sleep, union officials say. Each controller wears a pager so they can be contacted immediately if they are needed.

"It just seems ambiguous and punitive," said Dave O'Malley, union representative for a control center in Indianapolis that handles some flight traffic into airports in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia. "The work itself requires you to rest and recoup between the sessions."

On Wednesday, all employees at the Indianapolis center received a memorandum from the air traffic manager letting them know that sleeping on the job would result in disciplinary action ranging from a reprimand letter to a 10-day suspension.

Over the weekend, the FAA imposed a new contract on controllers after nine months of bitter negotiations broke down in April. A section of the contract says, "Sick leave cannot be granted for rest or minor inconveniences."

The union argues that means controllers would be forced to work, even if they're tired. Brown says that isn't the case.

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