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msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/22/2011 2:27:07 PM ET 2011-04-22T18:27:07

When Miami’s clouds turn foul and a parade of incoming pilots start demanding new routes, Jim Marinitti stares hard at the string of white blips on his black radarscope. He instantly rams his thoughts four moves ahead. He inches forward in his chair. The race is on.

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“You can feel like you’re not even breathing,” says Marinitti, an air traffic controller of 24 years. Up in the pilots’ seats, visuals vanish. Air space is squeezed. In a dim room 16,000 feet below, Marinitti radios his directions in soothing, staccato tones — steering, separating and sequencing the jets, hustling each gently to the ground before the storm swamps the airport. He’s working an airborne chess game on multiple tiers, in four directions, at 200 mph.

And, in Marinitti’s world, that’s known as the best half hour of the day.

“It’s addictive. You’ll have highs during the arrival pushes. Heart rate is up. Adrenaline is flowing. Then there’s a lull and you look forward to that next push,” he says. “Working traffic, some people describe it as a video game. And I can say, it’s the coolest video game in the world. But it’s a game you can’t lose.”

Air traffic controllers — so many of whom crave the controlled frenzy of their jobs — have nonetheless been painted in a series of recent media reports as dozing, sleepy-eyed slackers. At least seven times this year, controllers have been caught napping at work. The incidents sparked new rules to help keep controllers alert during graveyard shifts — and caused Hank Krakowski, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Organization, to resign.

The reality? They are, to some extent, an admittedly weary bunch whose natural sleep patterns are often disrupted by ever-changing schedules that constantly bounce them between day, evening and midnight shifts, according to some flight controllers.

But to an equal degree, they describe themselves as obsessed with safety and super self-critical — rapid-talking, snap-thinking, proud perfectionists. They are a pack of alpha personalities who can watch and converse with dozens of flights while typing totally different sets of data into their keyboards and simultaneously firing off salty zingers to their co-workers.

A different breed
“Controllers are a different breed of people,” says Ron Geyer, a certified professional controller who works at the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control — the world’s busiest pocket of air, handling Los Angeles, San Diego and roughly 60 airports in that area. Geyer, an 18-year veteran of the job, manages all the arrivals at Los Angeles International Airport during his eight-hour shifts.

When the controllers in his building (which is not a runway tower) go on their 25-minute breaks, they lug their Type-A personalities along, Geyer said. Some walk circles on an outside track, furiously pumping their arms “like they’re in the Olympics.” Others plow through books, flipping each page after just a few seconds.

“Everybody’s compulsive. They’re either a neat freak or they smoke 17 packs a day,” Geyer said. “To be good, you have to have some kind of compulsive behavior.”

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Workdays are typically marked by fast bursts of scheduled departures and landings spaced by calmer stretches when flights trickle in and out. But that pattern is sometimes hurled into disarray by one fickle foe: the weather. Storms can snarl and rattle the otherwise orderly swarm of jets aloft, forcing controllers to devise new paths and fresh plans on the fly.

“When it’s clear out, that’s called ‘wide-open visual.’ Which means we can just pump the airplanes onto that concrete — safely of course,” Geyer said.

“When the weather decreases, and pilots can’t see each other, that’s when our job gets more difficult,” he adds. On drizzly days, his radarscope shows aircraft “strung out like pearls. There are probably 40 planes lined up ... We have to maintain [proper airspace] separation ... We know when we’re driving into work, if it’s cloudy or rainy, we’re going to get our asses kicked.”

'We cannot fail'
Space and precision are everything. Saying “nine” instead of “niner” on the radio earns a demerit. Smaller planes must always be kept at least six miles behind jumbo jets. And for all aircraft, the standard minimum spacing is 1,000 feet vertically and three miles longitudinally or laterally.

“Even if it’s a wide-open, clear day, that doesn’t mean when I’m leaving work everything is good for me,” Geyer said. “I may have had somewhat of a traumatic experience ... Now, safety was not compromised. But if we break the [minimum-spacing rules], it’s like we just put two airplanes together. We just failed and that hurts. Even though everything is fine, no, I just failed. We cannot fail ... And we’re always being monitored.”

In jobs where mistakes may cost lives, some workers are "pre-wired" to handle the intense, inherent responsibilities — that is, they enter the field with brains built to help them naturally manage the pressure, said one stress expert.

But after years spent in that kind of high-wire profession, "I do think it takes a toll" on all workers, says Dr. Tracey Marks, an Atlanta psychiatrist and psychotherapist.

"It takes a tremendous amount of fortitude to be able to work under that kind of pressure all the time," Marks says. After years spent working in that type of perfectionist environment, "people can get depressed — and that's probably the most common result — which can manifest in irritability or just not outright having much pleasure; so they're going through life, kind of trudging through their days. You also can have people develop a lot of anxiety but who then try and treat themselves with alcohol or something else. It's the kind of thing that builds up over time."

Slideshow: Sleeping on the Job (on this page)

At terminal radar approach facilities like Geyer’s, most workers keep bottles of water at their stations to battle parched mouths and dry throats that come with constant jabbering. Some water jugs hold five gallons. Every workspace also is equipped with a cup holder for hot coffee which — according to Geyer — is never “strong enough.”

Controllers can leave the premises to grab a quick meal or they can munch snacks in a break room or cafeteria but, many times, they gobble burritos while maneuvering planes. During day and evening shifts, the darkened rooms are filled with the low hum of controllers chatting with pilots via their headsets. The dress code is casual. Cell phone use is not allowed.

When his shift ends, Geyer tries not to take the rigors of the job home with him, although he admits his patience is thin: If an after-work movie hasn’t grabbed his attention in two minutes, he leaves. Marinitti, meanwhile, says he hates standing in lines, participates in triathlons for relaxation, and acknowledges: “When you get off work, your mind is still going at same speed.”

Decisions, decisions
“I don’t want to talk anymore,” says Marinitti, who works at Miami International Airport, after a long day on the job. “You go home and you’re asked what you want for dinner. You say, ‘I really don’t care.’ You’re tired of making decisions. A controller spends all day making decisions — turn left, turn right, clear for landing, clear for takeoff, and by the time you’re done, I don’t want to make anymore decisions. I’m done.”

Not surprisingly, midnight shifts are the harshest hours, Marinitti adds. Flights are few — if any — and the adored adrenaline rush is nowhere to be found. He and a co-worker will trade off taking short breaks: simply walking around or sipping coffee before returning to their screens.

“You are fighting to stay awake. I’ll stay awake, but you never know how alert a person is,” he says.

Video: Wake up call for air traffic controllers (on this page)

An FAA study, done in tandem with NASA and the flight controllers union, recommended in January that the nation's 15,475 air traffic workers be allowed to take nap breaks of up to 2 1/2 hours during overnight shifts, as long as another controller remained on duty. Researchers also suggested that controllers sleep for 20- to 30-minute breaks during the day. But U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood nixed the ideas , saying "On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps.”

An FAA spokesman was asked Friday morning whether it is, indeed, fair to say that controllers, as a group, perform at high standards despite their challenging work conditions.

"We won't be able to provide anything on that short deadline," said FAA spokesman Jim Peters e-mailed back two hours later. "If headquarters decides to provide a statement, we'll e-mail it to you."

Said psychiatrist Marks: "We know shift work wreaks havoc on your circadian cycle and your sleep. Shift workers do not sleep well." In February, Marks published a book titled, "Master your Sleep." Strategically planned naps "would help make up for the lost sleep. I think it's a shame that they wouldn't be allowed to nap (on breaks). They need to refresh in order to to function." Controllers will continue to doze off at their work stations if the DOT policy is not changed, she predicted.

“We’re hoping this recent fatigue study will help push us over the edge as far as being able to take short naps on our regularly scheduled breaks,” Marinitti says. “All the science is behind us. But I guess it’s a political hot potato.

“On my own break, at 3 in the morning, what do you care if I go for a walk, get something to eat, or take a 20-minute power nap? As long as I return to work when I’m supposed to and I’m alert.”

Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of the new nonfiction book, “The Third Miracle.”

Video: Despite scrutiny, ATC errors abound

  1. Closed captioning of: Despite scrutiny, ATC errors abound

    >>> we have news from the world of aviation. again tonight, just days after the transportation department promised to fix problems in this country's air traffic control towers, there are two high-profile incidents to report tonight. first, the first lady's aircraft, an air force modified 737, was forced to abort its landing and then circle around andrews air force base yesterday after a controller error brought the official white house aircraft too close to a giant lumbering c-17 cargo jet that was landing in order in front of the first lady's plane. we should add, in the aviation business these are known as go-arounds. they're not entirely uncommon at busy airports. obviously less common on flights like this one. they're usually caused by a preponderance of caution combined with a miscalculation by pilots or the tower regarding air or ground speed . and a night shift controller in ohio has been suspended for watching a movie while on duty. he left his radio key open and was inadvertently transmitting a scene from a samuel l. jackson movie called "cleaner" to pilots passing overhead in the air space . after complaints that the controller couldn't be reached, an air force pilot got through on a military radio frequency.

Photos: Sleeping on the Job

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