Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What I Wish I Had Said



For those that didn’t hear it, yours truly was on NPR’s Morning Edition this morning. Besides the live show I was on at Oshkosh one year, it was my first radio interview. I guess it went well enough.



After the taping, I saw some non-aviation friends last night and one of them brought up the subject (sleeping controllers) and was relating what he had heard on the news. In short, everything was going to be okay. The head of air traffic control (he was uncertain whether it was Administrator Babbitt or Secretary LaHood) was going to assign more controllers to the midnight shift. Problem solved.

Not.

I was surprised at the level of anger I felt about it -- but that is what I felt. As I’ve said before, the FAA doesn’t have the controllers to provide the extra staffing. Therefore, it will be fighting fatigue by assigning controllers longer hours -- overtime. Does working overtime make you less tired?

And that is the crux of what I wish I had said to Brian Naylor (NPR’s reporter.) Everyone knows what it’s like to get sleepy. I should have personalized the issue. So, let’s do that now. Let’s not talk about some abstract controller sitting in some far-away place. Let’s talk about you.

I’m going to assume you are working a “day” shift today. You might think you’re off on Saturday/Sunday but you would be wrong. You’re off on Thursday/Friday, so that would make tomorrow (Wednesday) your last day at work. Unfortunately for you, your last “day” at work is going to begin when Wednesday starts -- at midnight. Let’s walk through this together.

When you get off work, you will do your standard commute and go straight home. You have to sleep for the midnight shift. Yes, it is almost summer and the sun stays up until 8 PM or so. You don’t. You have a duty to report to work well rested. First question; Do you take a shower before you go to sleep or after you get up? You pick. Remember, the clock is ticking. Sleep now? Okay then. Off you go, straight to bed.

What’s that? Not sleepy? Tough. Close your eyes and at least rest. The clock is ticking, Sport. You have to get some sleep. It’s going to be a long night. Somebody’s life might depend upon you being alert and functional. The taxpayers pay you a lot of money not to fall asleep at work. (Do you see how stupid that sounds when we’re talking about you? You can pay people a million dollars a night. That won’t prevent them from getting sleepy.)

KA-THUNK, KA-THUNK, KA-THUNK, KA-THUNK, KA-THUNK

What the hell??? Oh, don’t mind that. It’s just the kid next door practicing his basketball dribbling. At least, that’s what used to happen to me. Or my Mom or (non-controller) friends would call. Even after 25 years they could never figure out what shifts I worked. What? You forgot to turn off your phone? Rookie mistake. Go back to sleep.

Alarm Clocks 20101107a

Rise and shine, Sunshine. It’s 10 PM and time to get with it. Time for that shower you put off until now. What’s that? You’re hungry? Well duh. Supper was 4 hours ago. Shower first. Eat later. I was fortunate in that I was married. My wife would have a nice breakfast waiting for me. Single folks usually stop along the way to get something to eat. Yeah, restaurant selections are kind of slim at 10:30 PM. But the commute is a breeze at 11 PM.

Now, we are going to stick you in a dimly lit room for 8 hours and -- God help you -- if you fall asleep we will fire you. Hey, the people in those airplanes are worried about their lives. They aren’t worried about you not being able to feed your kids, or losing your retirement or losing your health insurance just because you nodded off for a couple of minutes. Suck it up.

Don’t worry, there are usually a few airplanes to work the first couple of hours. It’s around 3 AM that it gets tough. Best of luck to you. Oh, and no laptops, DVD players or headphones. The only reading material you’re allowed is FAA training manuals (like those won’t put you to sleep.)

What now? A bathroom break? Are you kidding me? You’re alone in a Tower. You figure out what you’re going to do about it.

Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock

Finally. Sunrise. See? That wasn’t so bad. You didn’t have to talk to an airplane after 1 AM. Easy money. Most nights are like that. Of course, some aren’t.



I hope you enjoy the rest of your day. Now remember, you need to stay awake and alert long enough to drive home. I mean, it wouldn’t do to have you keeping the Public safe and sound all night just to kill one of them on the way home because you fell asleep behind the wheel.

Don’t forget to turn off your phone when you get home. You need your sleep. Secretary LaHood decided to double up the staffing at some Towers on the mid shift. The good news is that you’ll now have someone to talk to and let you run down the stairs to the bathroom when you need to go. The bad news is that you are now assigned the overtime midnight shift tomorrow to make that happen. I can’t help it that you’re supposed to coach the Little League team this afternoon. Do you want to coach Little League or be an air traffic controller?

We’ll see you again in 16 hours for another midnight. I bet after 20 years of this routine we can convince you it’s safer to let a controller take a nap than to continue doing what we’ve been doing. Sleep tight.

Don Brown
April 19, 2011

4 comments:

Jesse said...

Well said and great blog! Unfortunately, ATC is in an uphill battle publicity wise. The general public doesn't undestand that unseen hand we play in their service. We, in general, treat our public image like we handle our internal workings. Excellence is the standard; it is expected. We don't celebrate success we record and focus on failings in an effort to improve areas of deficiency. It is commendable to have a system of constant effort and improvement but it doesn't translate well to the public. Instead, it appears as a record of our sloppiness and failings. I think the mystique of ATC would be better to eleviate. I think we have enjoyed a double edged sword in regards to the publics understanding of our careers. On the plus side, the public believes we are over-stressed math wizards that deserves to be compensated for our talents. On the flip side, their lack of education about ATC makes it impossible for them to understand we possibly could not be stationed at an airport and any black eyes against our profession have a more profound impact. If you don't know anything about a topic yourself, why would you question anything that is discussed on the news? Keep up the great work!

Vivian said...

Only one correction, Don. It should read "1 AM", not "1 PM".

Excellent job, as always!

sandy said...

I agree, this was well said. I have been a pilot for 25 years, some of it as a professional air taxi captain. Why don't we have controllers staffed in sites that are busy enough to keep them awake, and have at least two folks on at a time. If a place is so lightly used overnight that only a scant handful of operations occur, CLOSE THE TOWER! A non-tower airport is not inherently unsafe. Indeed, that majority of airports are non-towered. Many Class C airports already close their towers over the wee hours. Pilots know how to safely operate in and out of airports both with and without controller assistance. We are better off with no controllers than with sleeping ones. God bless 'em, let 'em sleep enough, and work alertly where they are truly needed.

Don Brown said...

-- Thanks Vivian.