Friday, April 08, 2011
Sleeping or Sleepy Controllers
I went for a visit at Mom and Dad’s yesterday and their questions about sleeping air traffic controllers inspired a pretty good rant. In that my friend Fallows keeps sending members of the general public to my blog, I thought I’d share it with everyone. A word of warning, this isn’t going to make anybody happy. That seems to be my lot in life.
Already, I’ve said “sleeping air traffic controllers” and I can hear my fellow controllers screaming that they weren’t controllers -- they were supervisors. Point taken. But it is barely relative. The point is that people acting as controllers were sleeping on the job -- intentionally and unintentionally.
That brings up two separate but connected problems. Midnight shifts are tough on humans. Rotating shifts -- working a different shift every day -- that include a midshift makes life even tougher. But there is no way around it. These shifts have to be covered. We cannot eliminate the problem. We can only mitigate it. But so far, the official response from the FAA -- and the entire industry -- doesn’t add up to much of anything.
The problem, as always, is money. It’s expensive to cover these shifts with the proper staffing. And -- for the record -- I consider the proper staffing to be a minimum of three people. Staffing a facility/sector with a single person is just plain stupid. I’m not even going to bother detailing it. But here is the problem with staffing it only with two people. With only two people, sooner or later you’re back to working with only one. Somebody does have to go to the bathroom at some point. (You don’t want to know what the guy working by himself does.) And human nature being what it is, this is the “logic” that takes over; “If I can work alone for 30 minutes, why not an hour? Or two hours? Hey! I’ve got an idea. You take the first half of the shift and I’ll take the second half and we’ll both get a much-needed nap.” It happens every time. And sooner or later, most managers go along with it.
Take a lesson from a lesson many have already forgotten. In July of 2002, two air traffic controllers reported for their midnight shift. After settling in, one of the controllers went on an “extended” break. The other controller became engrossed by a problem he encountered while working the low altitude radar scope. That distracted him from watching the high altitude radar scope. Two aircraft collided at 35,000 feet. One of them was a DHL delivering packages. The other airplane was carrying 45 kids on a school trip. In total, 71 people died. The fact that it happened over Uberlingen, Germany doesn’t detract from the core issue -- staffing.
What I want you to note is that this accident happened almost a decade ago. I wrote an article on it in 2005 and virtually nothing has changed. Staffing was the issue then and it’s the issue now. The “answers” now aren’t any better than they were then. All the “answers” to the staffing problem are expensive. The question is, do you staff to prevent these situations or do you accept the risk? So far, the answer has been that we will accept the risks to avoid the cost.
You cannot tell yourself that we will just have to manage the situation better. I think we should. And I think we could. But the facts don’t agree with me. People are people. But even if we could force two controllers to stay at their stations -- awake -- except for very short breaks, they’d get so sleepy that they would become dysfunctional. Try staying awake all night long and see if you’re up to working all the early birds that want to take off before the day shift shows up.
The answer is as simple as it is obvious -- let them take a nap. But right now, taking a nap at work can get you fired. And, you’re right back to the problem of needing three people to cover the sector/facility. I can just hear it now if the union wanted to negotiate three people on a midnight shift and taking naps to boot. Can you imagine how much fun the politicians would have with that one? The FAA wouldn’t fare much better -- what with the “incompetent government” narrative so prevalent these days.
Here’s an idea. Everyone that has expressed outrage over sleeping and/or sleepy air traffic controllers this month? Why don’t you call up your Congressman, tell them to act like adults and do the right thing? Tell them to mandate the proper staffing and periods of rest. The life you save might be your own.
April 8, 2011