Airports Fail to Put Safety First

COMMENTARY | Sleeping on the job has taken on a new meaning lately, as we have heard report after report of air traffic controllers being caught sleeping while at their posts. The latest was at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport Wednesday, where a controller was suspended after a medical flight was not able to make contact with the tower for 16 minutes.

This incident came on the heels of at least four similar incidents that involved sleeping or absent air traffic controllers.

A controller in Seattle was suspended Monday for falling asleep. The FAA reported that that controller already faced punishment for falling asleep on two other occasions.

Two weeks ago, two controllers in Lubbock, Texas, were suspended after failed handoffs.

Last month at Washington’s Regan National Airport, two jetliners landed without tower assistance after the traffic supervisor fell asleep.

An investigation by the FAA brought to light in February an air traffic controller was sleeping during the midnight shift at McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tenn.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced immediate changes in response to the continued problems.

“[E]ffective immediately the FAA will place an additional air traffic controller on the midnight shift at 27 control towers around the country that are currently staffed with only one controller during that time,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Randy Babbitt announced in a press release.

In the same statement, LaHood expressed outrage over the incidents, saying. “The American public trusts us to run a safe system. Safety is our No. 1 priority and I am committed to working 24/7 until these problems are corrected.”

However, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association has long warned against putting controllers alone on shifts and assigning tiring work schedules.

“NATCA has long been outspoken in its opposition to one-person staffing on any shift,” the organization stated in response to the news that the FAA will add controllers. “In fact, the NATCA membership, in its strong commitment to aviation safety, adopted language in its formal constitution nearly 20 years ago opposing one-person staffing on a shift. That language remains in effect today.”

The NATCA goes on to say that the current administration has ” inherited an unsafe policy of staffing to budget instead of putting safety first.”

While the recent problems with sleeping air traffic controllers is indeed shocking and outrageous, the true problem lies not with a handful of bad employees but with a system that fails to put safety first. Although both science and common sense tell us that putting a single, sleep-deprived person in charge of the safety of others is unwise, policy allowed it and the budget encouraged it.

Fortunately, none of the recent incidents ended in disaster. That has not always been the case. In August of 2006, 49 people died after Comair Flight 191 crashed in Lexington, Ky. According to the NATCA, there was only one controller on duty at the time handling multiple responsibilities.

As the NATCA said quite clearly: “One-person shifts are unsafe. Period.”

It seems as if, finally, someone is starting to listen.