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.

Don Brown
April 8, 2011


Tango Whiskey said...

I agree with your comments Don. Underlying the whole problem is the weekly schedule of 2 afternoon shifts followed by a quick turn (8-10 hours off) prior to coming back for 2 morning shifts, followed by another quick turn to the midnight shift. (I have read the supervisor on duty at Reagan Airport actually was working a week of straight midnight shifts, but that is another issue.)

This weekly compressed schedule has been documented to be the worst possible schedule on your body. Yet nothing has changed because, in my opinion, neither NATCA (i.e. the controllers) nor the FAA management truly desire to change. Each party has their reasons for maintaining status quo.

I currently am working overseas and I work with controllers from all over Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. None of them worked schedules like the FAA works. At my present facility we work 2 day shifts followed by a 24 hour break, 2 afternoon shifts followed by a 24 hour break, and then 2 midnight shifts. After we get off from the 2nd mid we have the rest of that day plus 3 more days off. The whole crew works the midnight shift, but most of the controllers work only a partial shift, getting either the front half or back half off. Generally one or two controllers are assigned the whole midnight shift but they get a 2-3 hour break near the middle of the shift and are encouraged to take a nap in one of the provided sleeping rooms.

I can honestly say that I feel much more rested and healthy working a schedule like this and I am convinced if the FAA adopted it my fellow controllers in the USA would love it. The only "negative" is your week-end is cut 8 hours short by reporting for a day shift your first day back instead of an afternoon shift.

teachforbigeasy said...

I have a question that arises mostly from lack of knowledge, so forgive me if the answer is obvious. Why can't tower controllers be in the TRACON facility or even all of the above at a center? It seems if you consolidated multiple airports into one facility, then you could have one person per scope and not have to pay for more people but have the safety that comes from never having to leave one controller alone. If visuals are the issue, it seems like it would be easy enough to have panoramic video feeds transmitted to the TRACON facility.

Corky Boyd said...

I find your take on sleepy controllers interesting but untenable.

You point out two tower controllers will inevitably split the shift and sleep half of it. That solves no problems, there is almost the same probability of the on-shift controller falling asleep as the single controller. And assigning three controllers to do the work if one underworked, bored controller is wasteful to the extreme.

I agree that rotating shifts are the worst thing. The internal clock simply can't catch up.

But I have worked in a business (newspapers) where we operated on a three shift basis. But instead of rotating shifts during the week, about a quarter of the force worked midnight to 8AM constantly. When the "lobster shift" folks got enough seniority, they could move to a different shift. Similar work schedules are prevalent in the auto industry, though the three shift format has rarely worked well becuase it conficts with scheduled and unschedule maintenance.

Both of these industries are highly unionized and have come to terms with it.

The real problem is boredom. The answer is not assigning three people to do a one person job.

teachforbigeasy has a good idea, but my guess is it wouldn't be agreeable with the union.

Don Brown said...


A piece of the puzzle you might be missing is job skill retention. I don't enough about other jobs so I'm not sure there is a comparison. Maybe playing in an orchestra. I don't know. Anyway, a controller's skills deteriorate rapidly. Let's call it "working speed". With little traffic on the mid shift, a controller would soon fall so far behind in "working speed" that he'd be unable to function on a day or evening shift without a day or two of training to get his speed back up.

Ask any controller that has been on a week's vacation. It takes an hour or two to get back up to speed. I know a couple of controllers that wouldn't take a two week vacation (only a week at a time) because it bothered them so much -- trying to get back up to speed.

Something else I feel you might be missing. The issue isn't sleepiness. It's functionality -- being able to function on the level that air traffic control demands. We can't stop people from being sleepy on a midnight shift. It doesn't matter where they are working or how many of them are working. The only way to keep them from becoming dysfunctional is to let them sleep/nap.

"Wasteful" has strange connotations when a one-word mistake can get 500 people killed.

Don Brown

Don Brown said...


Sorry for the delay, I thought I had answered already. There's a private company out there trying to sell your idea. They call it a virtual tower.

I'm not so quick to believe in technology. Think of replicating a controller's eyes with your video feed. Go from looking at the ramp to checking the sky conditions to looking through binoculars to check on something. Walk through how an operator would do that with a remotely controlled camera -- times the 2-3-4-5 airports you envision them operating.

Think redundancy. Think of the chances for task saturation vs. efficiency. "Profit" and "loss" translate poorly in air traffic control.

I'm glad you're interested and I'm always happy to see that people are really thinking about the subject.
Thanks for writing.

Don Brown

Don Brown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Don Brown said...

virtual towers