America’s 15,743 air traffic controllers are out of sight, but no longer out of mind. All it took was seven controllers sleeping on the job to tarnish the industry, and raise nagging questions over how safe it is to fly if the guy or gal in charge of keeping the runways clear is in la la land.
Since February, there have been seven such instances at six airports, including Reagan National in Washington, D.C. The latest episode happened over the weekend near Miami. But the most troubling incident played out last week at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada, in which a pilot was forced to circle for 15 minutes with a sick patient on board, while the controller was unresponsive after dozing off at the switch.
Fortunately no one has been injured, but it woke the FAA out of its own slumber and led to the immediate dismissal of Hank Krakowski, the head of the Air Traffic Organization, a wing of the aviation administration charged with overseeing the nation’s 512 commercial control towers.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood intends to staff every tower with two controllers during overnight shifts. Until that policy can fly, 27 towers have already added a second hand.
At Harrisburg’s International Airport, businessman Mark Treace is surfing the Web, while waiting to board a flight Friday afternoon headed for Tri-Cities, Tennessee.
“It’s certainly not good that the industry is dealing with it, it’s a bit disconcerting,” said Treace.
A couple of chairs over Leah Sipe sits impatiently waiting for her best friend to bounce off a United Airlines jet due in from Chicago.
“I hate to fly, and hearing about this certainly won’t make it any easier for me want to jump on a plane,” said Sipe.
Not the sort of words that ring well with Scott Miller, HIA’s deputy director of marketing. Miller laments that it takes few people to cast an unfavorable mark over so many outstanding air traffic controllers that help almost 30,000 planes take off and land safely in the U.S. every day.
“What you have here is really getting blown up. It is not the norm, and it should not have happened,” said Miller.
HIA assigns two controllers to work the mids, a shift that runs from midnight to six am. However, they do not work side by side. One is based in a radar room, while the other oversees an area known as CAB. Duties are divided by how high or low an aircraft is flying.
An FAA representative speaking on the condition of anonymity acknowledged the difficulties of working the mids, which is usually when air traffic controllers are caught sleeping on the job.
He said the FAA is aware of the findings from national sleep studies, which have shown time after time that the human body is more susceptible to fatigue during those hours. Still the FAA refuses to allow air traffic controllers to nap during breaks. He does not know what changes are in store and declined to speculate.
Randy Babbitt, the head of the FAA, begins a nationwide tour of control towers today. Babbitt’s first stop is in Atlanta, where he is expected to announce some initial policy changes.
(In the video attached to our story on Rock The Capital, you can hear that pilot in Reno calling on the air traffic controller numerous times)
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