FAA adds 27 additional air controllers to graveyard shift

Written by admin on July 26, 2011 – 3:49 pm -

Sleep is good. But, not when you’re on duty in an airport control tower and responsible for planes landing. After air controllers were found asleep on the job at Washington’s Reagan National Airport; Seattle’s King Field, Wa.; Lubbock, Texas; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Reno-Tahoe International Airport, Nv.; the federal government added a second controller at the 27 air towers that were staffed by only one person on the late night shift.

This was instituted after two jets landed without tower help at the Nation Capital’s Reagan airport.  Another plane, an air ambulance flight carrying a sick patient, was able to land without tower help.  The planes (and who knows how many others) landed safely. But, who would opt to be on them?

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood said, ”I am totally outraged by these incidents. This is unacceptable. “The American public trusts us to run a safe system.”

Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Randy Babbitt agreed with Lahood and announced an additional controller would be added on overnight shifts. ”Air traffic controllers are responsible for making sure aircraft safely reach their destinations,” Babbitt said. “We absolutely cannot and will not tolerate sleeping on the job. This type of unprofessional behavior does not meet our high safety standards.”

No kidding. But, did it ever occur to you there’d be a sole controller in a tower at a major airport? And certainly not at Washington, DC’s Reagan Airport. After all, it’s the one that members of Congress traditionally use. Maybe in some out-of-the-way airports with little traffic might not need 24/7 air traffic controllers.

Response from the Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Rockerfeller (D-WV), was unusually blunt.

I just got off the phone with the FAA and told the Administrator that I am sick of this. I have the utmost respect for air traffic controllers, the vast majority of whom work hard and are outstanding professionals. But we can’t have an aviation system where some of the people responsible for safety are literally asleep at the switch. This has to stop. The agency needs to do whatever it takes to keep air traffic controllers from sleeping on the job or not treating their responsibilities with the highest level of seriousness and attention.

Chairman John Mica (R-FL) of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee took a different approach. He sees the increased workers on the graveyard shift as a misdirection of resources.

“Only in the federal government would you double up on workers, averaging $161,000 per year in salary and benefits, that aren’t doing their job.”

“This increase in staffing, when there is little to no traffic, also misdirects our resources and focus away from congested air traffic control facilities.”

Mica and other Committee leaders plan a closed door meeting in Washington on Thursday with FAA leaders to discuss the recent spate of near misses, runway incursions and incidents of sleeping on the job.

The FAA said a second controller will be added to the midnight shift at Akron-Canton, Ohio; Allegheny, Pa.; Andrews Air Force Base, Md.; Burbank, Calif.; Duluth, Minn.; DuPage, Ill., Fargo, N.D.; two airports in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Ft. Worth Meacham, Texas; Grant County, Wash.; Kansas City, Mo.; Manchester, N.H.; Omaha, Neb.; Ontario, Calif.; Reno-Tahoe, Nev.; Richmond, Va.; Sacramento, Calif.; San Diego, Calif.; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Terre Haute, Ind.; Teterboro, N.J.; Tucson, Ariz.; Willow Run, Mich.; Windsor Locks, Conn., and Youngstown, Ohio. A second nighttime controller was also added at an approach control facility in Omaha.

This issue of air traffic controllers leaving the tower and taking naps is not a cut and dried issue. In many cases controllers have to visit the bathroom, which may be on another floor of the tower. And some experts say that naps actually help with alertness in the towers when air traffic picks up. This is a debate we will certainly hear over the coming weeks.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

Photo: regulus-starnotes.blogspot.com

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