Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Not NPR -- MPR

In all the hoopla you may have missed this story at Minnesota Public Radio.

Controller: Doubling control tower staffing no cure for the sleepy

”Brown, who writes the blog , Get the Flick, says the only way the FAA can add a second controller overnight is through overtime. But that makes the problem even worse because it adds a controller who's already tired at the beginning of the shift. "You're just doubling the problem," he says.”

Yeah, I’ve been busy. As controllers all know, this problem is very nuanced and a 3-minute radio clip or 500-word print story isn’t the way to understand nuance (although the guys that try to do it -- including Bob Collins, above-- can do amazing things in a small amount of space.)

One controller is dumb but it’s better than none. Two is better than one but don’t kid yourself, a lot of times you’ll be getting one while paying for two. I’d love to tell you that all people are perfect and don’t cut corners but I’m in the safety business, not in the lying business. I’d love to tell you that all controllers would be smart about getting two people where we only had one before. But the FAA isn’t being smart about it, so why would you expect controllers to be smarter than the organization they work for? (I expect them to smarter -- because most of them are -- but that’s another story.)

Two controllers could work better if handled properly. Both stay awake from 11 until, say, 2 AM. One takes an hour nap (at the control position so he’ll be available if something unexpected happens) and the other one gets a nap between 3 and 4 AM. (Make it an hour and half each between 2 and 5 AM.) That way, you have two people working the early and late portions of the shift -- which is when they are typically working airplanes. Naps are taken when they are typically not working airplanes.

Do I think we (the controller workforce in total) have the kind of discipline needed to stick to those guidelines? No, I don’t. At least not for any length of time (like a decade.) But the point is moot anyway. The FAA isn’t going to allow controllers to take naps. So all you wind up with is two sleepy (i.e. dysfunctional) controllers. Or two controllers that ignore the rules and nap anyway. (You might want pause a moment and think about which is worse -- sleepy controllers or controllers that become inured to breaking rules.)

And if that attitude/policy (no naps) prevails at the FAA, there is no point in assigning three controllers. You just wind up with three sleepy controllers. One sleepy controller can screw up on his own just fine. He doesn’t need any “help”. The only reason you need three controllers is to allow for naps and/or breaks away from the control position. That’s what the science says you need. That’s what a truly safe system demands.

We aren’t going to get that. I told you we weren’t before the DOT Secretary and the FAA Administrator made it official.

Don Brown
April 20, 2011

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