Dozing in the Control Tower: The Rest of the Story

Somebody fell asleep in the control tower and a plane full of women and childrenATC were in peril. “Oh, the humanity”. Relax folks, you were never in danger of losing your life – if the pilots in the cockpit are napping when it’s time to land – then it’s time to worry. Trust me on this one; they won’t be.

The recurring questions I’ve been asked lately surround the spate of incidents where an air traffic controller has been caught dozing on the job. Having been a commercial airline pilot for the last 28 years, my take on issue at hand is a little less impassioned and lot more matter of fact. It goes something like this; yes, they dozed off much the same as you have at some point in your life – while on the job, behind the wheel of your car, or listening to your spouse. Like you, they’re human and at times succumb to the frailties of humanity.

Allowing mob mentality to throw the air traffic controllers totally under the bus would be wrong when what is needed is merely a wake-up call (sorry, I couldn’t resist) for both parties. In actuality these headline grabbing incidents are cases where unintended consequences occurred as a result of a negotiated, albeit ill-advised contract between two parties that set one up for failure and the other to look extremely bad as a result.

The entertaining element of this fiasco is watching the complicit cast of characters take the offensive and attempt to get above the fray and win public opinion. Typically, the first one to the microphone wins this war and sure enough, the government chiefs and administrators took round one. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made the obligatory rounds on TV pronouncing he’s got it under control while wagging his finger and exhorting, “not on my watch”! One has to wonder whether LaHood’s public ire centers on the incidents and their root causes or because they made him look bad. One should know that Secretary LaHood was Congressman LaHood for 28 years before he became a political appointee. He is a world class deflector of blame.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt is a little more subdued. Babbitt is actually a pretty good guy in that he actually got his hands dirty within the aviation industry before he began wearing a white collar to work. He’s fluent in the many facets of the industry having retired as a Captain at Eastern Air Lines, was a union leader with the Air Line Pilots Association, founded an aviation consulting group, and then served as a political appointee on various aviation industry committees. One could surmise that Babbitt’s more measured approach comes from his own experience that relates directly to that of the controllers; on again-off again work shifts on the back side of the clock. No doubt Babbitt remembers times flying the all-night red-eyes from Los Angeles to Atlanta when he struggled to keep his eyes open as the sun was rising. Thank God for that second pilot in the cockpit and the option to turn the cockpit lights on at cruise altitude.

The back story behind all this is fairly interesting. In the late 90’s, NASA did an extensive bit of work funded by taxpayers, commissioned by the government, and endorsed by aviation labor groups to research the effects of sleep deprivation, job performance, rest periods, and napping in the cockpit. The results were not earth shattering: Pilots get sleepy when it’s dark outside and the workload is low. They found that a short nap (10 minutes or so) restored a much higher level of competency that lasted a remarkably long time. This was accomplished with a second pilot fully attentive and in control of the operation. To date, the FAA has not endorsed the NASA research results to the point that would compel airlines to adopt such a policy.

The salient point is that no matter how rested operators are when they come to work, being human happens – we tend to get sleepy when the environment is set. Pilots don’t come to work to sleep, they come to do their job; responsibly and safely; so do air traffic control professionals.

I’ve been asked why there was only one person in the tower at Washington Reagan Airport where the first incident happened. One would have thought that such a high value tower so close to important real estate would demand redundancy. Apparently not. From an operational standpoint, the idea that it’s okay to operate a tower in a major city with a single controller is naïve. The air traffic controllers union knows this and have been soliciting the government unsuccessfully to fund a second controller position for a long time. Not surprisingly, the FAA recently conceded.

Finally, the signed work agreement between Mr. LaHood’s negotiators and the controllers union is key to mitigating this problem that involves irregular sleep/rest cycles hinged to work shifts. Immediately following the initial embarrassment, LaHood and Babbitt announced that they were enacting a policy across the board allowing controllers an additional hour of rest between shifts. At the time the minimum legal rest break was 8 hours. This act on the part of the ‘magnanimous’ bureaucrats was totally meaningless in actuality, but played well on TV. The current contract allows for a controller to construct an incredibly rigorous work schedule where the payoff is an extra day off. We’ve learned they refer to it as a ‘rattler’, because it will bite you. Cute. Eight hours on, nine hours off, eight hours on, nine hours off …. Reach 40 hours and take an extra day to spend with the wife and kids.

The machine isn’t broken but there were a few parts left over from the assembly process. Adding a second operator after midnight, reworking the duty/rest restrictions, and inviting a human factors specialist to join the discussion would go a long way to staying out of the headlines. Regrettably, the road to the solution will be filled with bluster.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told the AP.

I think that is totally bogus there are so many professions that have to work long hours. I was greeted this morning by a young surgeon that had been working all night in an ER.”

The good news for Congressman Mica as he pieced together this apples and oranges connection is that when the ER specialist comes calling the room is well lit, he will be accompanied by a couple nurses, and the hospital allowed the good doc to grab a quick nap when the workload allowed.


2 Responses

  1. Great post. Maybe we could get Dunkin Donuts to provide free coffee for ATC at airports and get some free advertising in return.

    Washington airport information alpha, time 0700z, winds calm, CAVOK, altimeter 29.92,…… this ATIS information was brought to you by Dunkin Donuts. Remember America Runs on Dunkin Donuts.

  2. Nice job, as usual, Scott.

    I enjoy your writing work!


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