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D'ya think?

Sleeping air traffic controllers

April 16, 2011
Air traffic controllers are reportedly dozing off during the mid watch. And guess what?? We suddenly have a new "physical disorder". It's called "Shift Work Sleep Disorder" (SWSD). We will surely be hearing more about this. It seems likely that the first thing we need is a bucketful of money so we can pay learned folks at a (or several) university(s) to study the disorder more closely as it applies to air traffic controllers and all the demands placed on them. Surely we will learn some new things (maybe useful - maybe not). Instead of demanding that controllers come to work rested and prepared to work, so called scientists are suggesting sanctioned two hour "on the clock" naps with an additional half hour to wake up. In the meantime, we are left to wonder about the relationship between SWSD and circadian rhythm. Hmmm...

This looks like no more than another great opportunity for unintended consequences. Start giving controllers on the mid watch "on the clock sleep - and wake up - time" and how long do you suppose it will be before controllers on the "evening watch" will need the same?? And then, how about those controllers on the day watch who stayed up too late the night before?? Shouldn't they get s little "on the clock nap time" also?? Talk about a "slippery slope".

We hear on the evening news that it has happened in four towers across the country.. Actually, it has happened at least eight times in five different facilities that we have heard of: Reno, NV (once); Lubbock TX (twice); Seattle WA (three times - same controller who was finally suspended when they caught him the third time); Knoxville TN (once); and Washington National (once).

Fear not! The Secretary of Transportation, being the good politician that he is, knows how to take care of problems - and this one is no exception. According to his interview on CBS' The Early Show (Hah - you thought all I ever listened to was FOX) he has "...ordered two controllers into every tower." Presumably that would be the 26 big time towers that are advertised as being "open" during the mid watch (normally eleven p.m. to seven a.m. - or midnight to eight a.m.), even though they don't have enough activity to truly warrant a manned (generic man) control tower during the midnight watch. Surely the controllers' union will love the solution. So who is this guy?? LaHood was a Republican politician from Chicago, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2009 when he was appointed Secretary of Transportation. The Secretary's "prompt reaction" looks exactly like a solution we could expect from a politician and it is. Clearly the Chicago influence overrides the Republican influence. It's nothing more than a knee jerk reaction likely designed to create the impression that the DoT is on top of the problem and is taking bold steps to solve it. The biggest change that we can expect from the new staffing is that the controllers will be able to take turns napping. That belief is clearly buttressed by an Associated Press report in which they cite interviews with both active and retired controllers. They report being told by present and former controllers that "... at most air traffic facilities, it's common for two controllers working together at night to engage in unsanctioned sleeping swaps whereby one controller works two jobs while the other controller naps and then they switch off...". The controllers reportedly asked not to be named because they didn't want jeopardize their jobs or co workers' jobs." Surprise!!

With the Secretary of Transportation seeming to be taking charge, one of the first questions that we would expect to be asked, is, "Where was the FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt while all of this is going on and what is he doing about it??" It isn't clear where he has been up till now other than accepting the resignation of his manager of Air Traffic Operations (who reportedly "resigned"), but according to an article in the WSJ (4/15) he and Paul Rinaldi, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents FAA's more than 15,000 controllers, will be visiting airports and radar facilities around the country next week "to reinforce the need for all air traffic personnel to adhere to the highest professional standards." That should take care of things. And, isn't it nice that the FAA Administrator is taking the union chief with him?? (Almost sounds like a page out of the anointed one's play book, doesn't it??) Perhaps if the union chief tells the controllers to "shape up", it will happen. But then, maybe not. And what kind of a message will that send to the rank and file about who is in charge of air traffic control in this country?? Do you suppose that Administrator Babbitt who was a pilot for Eastern Airlines for 25 years, during which time he was also President and CEO of ALPA (Air Line Pilots Association), the worlds largest professional organization (read, union) of airline pilots, had any bearing on his "making nice" with the controllers union??

What kind of an environment do you suppose it is that results in conditions where employees doze off while on duty?? (Disregarding the controller who reportedly brought his own pillow and blanket to work with him - which certainly makes it look as though napping was what he had in mind all along.)

I would suggest that working rotating shifts is a contributor (but I don't buy the SWSD argument). Actually working the day shift (nominally 8a.m. to 4 p.m.) and the evening shift (nominally 4p.m. to midnight) should not be terribly burdensome because those are hours that are fairly well within an individual's normal waking hours. It is the midnight watch (nominally midnight to 8a.m.) that takes us into a period of the day (or is it night??) during which we "normally" sleep. People who work shift work must be able to adapt to a changed work - play- sleep pattern each time their shift assignment changes. Can the "circadian clock" be reset?? Short answer yes, but it takes a few days to become fully effective. That would suggest that when shifts are changed, the new shift should continue for more than just a few days. Based on having been a radio operator (in an earlier life) working rotating shifts courtesy of the U.S. Army, I can attest to this fact. When we rotated to the midnight shift, it normally took a few days to get fully adjusted to the new watch schedule. It's sort of like resetting your circadian clock every so often. It works.

It stands to reason that another, and perhaps even more significant, contributor to the problem is the fact that there is not a great deal of work to be done at many of these towers on the midnight watch. Does anyone truly believe that the FAA would staff a tower with only one controller if there was more activity expected than one controller could handle?? The short answer is (or should be), NO!! Reportedly, the tower at Washington National Airport has four or five arrivals and one departure scheduled during the mid watch. It is a guess, but an educated guess, that the other facilities in which controllers have been found sleeping likewise have extremely low traffic counts on the midnight watch. Does that mean that the FAA is compromising safety?? Not unless you are one of those who believes that safety is an absolute (which it isn't). Do you suppose that "boredom" has anything to do with controllers dozing off?? It surely could.

As a matter of fact, the FAA has many towers that are closed during the night for lack of traffic. I believe it also has some towers that are only open about 12 - 14 hours per day for the very same reason. If traffic during the "off" time is virtually non-existent, why would the tower need to be staffed?? Short answer: It wouldn't - and these low activity towers aren't. Does that mean that aircraft are not allowed to land at those airports when they tower is closed?? No. Different sets of procedures apply.

At night, for example, pilots can turn on runway lights remotely and land just as safely as they can land at any other "uncontrolled" (i.e. no air traffic control tower) airport (and there are a lot of 'em).

So what are some solutions - other than additional staffing??

There are at least two approaches to accommodating the circadian rhythm situation: have controllers work permanent shifts with no rotation (this may be possible on a "volunteer" basis); or require that the "rotation frequency" be extended to a minimum of two or three weeks or more.

A second alternative for accommodating a single person watch situation might be to install a "Klaxon" horn that can be activated from the cockpit of an aircraft that is otherwise unable to "raise" a controller. After the pilot calls the air traffic control tower two or three times with no response, key the "Klaxon" (just as they are able to "key" on runway lights at "uncontrolled airports). Surely that would wake up even the deepest sleeper.

Regardless of what the controllers' union might say, there is not a valid safety or operational reason for increasing staffing - particularly in those situations where there isn't even enough work to keep one controller awake. I believe the taxpayer has the right to expect government employees (including air traffic controllers), especially those whose compensation runs into the six figure range (which controller pay does) to show up for work, rested and ready and able to work.

D'ya think??

  1. reply print email
    Knowing a bit about NATCA
    April 16, 2011 | 07:28 PM

    Having been an air traffic controller in the USAF for 24 years and having been one of the controllers to fill in at major airports during the strike, I would be willing to bet that NATCA is encouraging these sleeping on duty reports to generate more man-power, reduced hours and to protect those who have been caught napping so they don't lose their jobs. By the way, controllers who do work mid shifts go in planning a get at least a couple of hours of sleep. Blankets, sleeping bags, alarm clocks are all brought in. In any event, the Klaxon would be disabled as soon as the controller reported for duty. Too noisy.

  2. reply print email
    Good points but...
    April 16, 2011 | 11:39 PM

    So you worked midnight shifts in the military and didn't snooze - I don't buy it. You think the other 24 hour jobs aren't catching naps here and there? Firefighters, doctors, police (yes they do) all find time to refresh and that's just the way it is.

    Humans are not meant to stay up all night. Put one in a dark room with nothing to do for 8 hours and expecting them to stay awake is absurd.

    You have some valid points. Especially about the towers being open at all - it's ridiculous and a waste of money. However straight midnight shifts are even worse than working just one or two in a row (look it up).

    Ultimately it boils down to individual choices. Some of them have made bad ones but how is that different from any other job? And don't say "but they have people's lives blah blah blah). Remember the bus driver in NY? Guy made a bad choice and killed 13 people then tried to lie about it. Wanna bet he fell asleep?


  3. reply print email
    Knowing a bit about employment.
    April 17, 2011 | 12:59 PM

    Frank writes as if there's some sort of problem with the union, and they lack credibility. I don't think they need to staff more people, personally, but simply rearange the schedule to have two people on at night and fewer during the day and evening. We're only talking about 1 more person so the hole left behind would be minimal. Else, just close up a couple more airports at night.
    But I must remind Frank that he may resent the union, but he was part of the biggest and best union in the world for at least 24 years. They have their little games, too.

    Greg Emerson
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