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Controllers Sleeping On The Job; So Is The FAA

Wed, Apr 20, 2011 — David Evans

Articles

By Gabe Bruno

Executive Director

FAA Whistleblowers Alliance

With the political embarrassment that the recent sleeping controller reports have brought to the Obama Administration (including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt), it was inevitable that someone would be fired. The only question was who, and Hank Krakowski, FAA Chief of Air Traffic, was the logical fall guy. Not that he didn’t deserve to be fired for many other reasons related to safety issues that have been disclosed by FAA Whistleblowers over the years. On his watch, several controllers had to take the concerns about unsafe procedures to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) because the FAA would neither acknowledge nor correct their safety concerns.

Secretary LaHood: "We are taking swift action to ensure the safety of our aviation system."

Judging by Secretary LaHood’s angry demeanor and embarrassment, he most likely got a call from the White House that called for a sacrifice to try to assure the public that sleeping government workers would not be tolerated. Obama’s blanket statement, “We’ve got it under control” shows me that he’s clueless. I wonder if he will maintain this “under control” position after the go-around incident 19 March with Mrs. Obama’s flight into Andrews AFB.

Apparently the NTSB has been called in to investigate the circumstances that forced Mrs. Obama’s flight to perform a go-around. This is a bit unusual because the NTSB normally does not investigate aircraft go-around occurrences unless they are connected with an accident or serious incident. Has the President and White House staff lost confidence in the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the FAA’s competence to effectively deal with safety risks? Is the current lax safety environment the DOT and FAA impose on the rest of the public all of a sudden not good enough?

One would hope the White House will take an interest in the critical safety issues that FAA whistleblowers have been disclosing for years – and losing their careers in non-appreciation of their efforts.

The fix for the problem that LaHood announced on Sunday, 17 April, is ridiculous; controllers now must have a minimum of 9 hours off instead of 8. That’s laughable! It looks like NATCA, the controllers union, is being successful in protecting their ability to “cram shifts” so they can still schedule 3 day weekends. The rest of the fix; angry LaHood running around shaking his finger because he’s politically embarrassed, just demonstrates the Administration’s total lack of understanding the roots of the issue.

This falls way too short of what needs to be done to stabilize work shifts to allow the human body to cope properly with duty requirements (being alert) and rest requirements. Once again, public safety takes a back seat to Administration politics.

An IMMEDIATE and MEANINGFUL intervention is called for, such as requiring two full shifts off before returning for duty. Obviously, the union doesn’t want this and angry LaHood doesn’t seem to have grasped what it takes to deal effectively with the problem. Neither, apparently, has Babbitt grasped the utter triviality of adding a mere one hour between shifts.

The best they can come up with is the LaHood ordered “Damage Control Tour” with FAA Administrator Babbitt and union President Paul Rinaldi making the rounds of FAA air traffic facilities to talk about “professional standards”. The official title of this effort is “Call to Action” and it was invoked about two years ago for pilots in the aftermath of the Colgan Air flight 3407 crash in 2009, when the two pilots commuted hundreds of miles to work and catnapped on couches in their base station before assuming their flying duties.

Meanwhile, back at FAA HQ, Babbitt has left his Chief Counsel, David Grizzle, as acting head of the Air Traffic Organization (ATO). Really? A lawyer in charge of ATO? Does this mean there is no one capable and trustworthy in the ATO to act as interim chief until a permanent replacement for Krakowski is found? This appointment of Grizzle as acting chief has the appearance of the FAA being more concerned with its legal liabilities than it is with ensuring public safety.

The Administration is hiding behind more useless studies and will spend more taxpayer money on “independent reviews”, instead of taking meaningful corrective action. Back in history when this country used to actually manufacture products, we had factories working 3 shifts around the clock, and the shift for each worker was fairly stabilized. Two shifts off before returning for work, and a seniority system that controlled changing to a different shift. This arrangement seemed to work well; people were not falling asleep with the seeming regularity of air traffic controllers.

One thing I do agree with Secretary LaHood on however, is his position against having controllers being allowed to sleep as part of their paid shift. With the current economic condition of our country it is doubtful that a paid sleeping program with be welcome by the taxpayer who foots the bill. If a Sleep at Work Program does become part of the recommended fix, I know plenty of well-qualified candidates who are already on the payroll at FAA Headquarters.

A good dose of common sense would go a long way towards alleviating this problem and might even avert a tragedy – two shifts off, not a token one hour increase.

The FAA has ceased to be a safety agency and only reacts when the public has a peek at their malfeasance.


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