Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sleeping Air Traffic Controllers and the Battle for the Shop Floor

At Washington Reagan National Airport in late March, a sleeping controller failed to respond to two airliners seeking to land shortly after midnight.  The resulting publicity broke the silence on a long festering problem between the FAA and the air controllers’ union NATCA.  That there is a culture of sleeping on the job.  It is banned by long existent regulations, but ignored by the controllers especially on the midnight shift.  This is now the battle for control of the “shop floor.”  From an AP report dated April 18:  

It has been an open secret in the FAA dating to at least the early 1990s that controllers sometimes sleep on the job….

Much more common is taking a nap on purpose, they said. On midnight shifts, one controller will work two positions while the other one sleeps and then they switch off, controllers said. The unsanctioned arrangements sometimes allow controllers to sleep as much as three hours or four hours out of an eight-hour shift, they said.

The FAA does not allow controllers to sleep at work, even during breaks. Controllers who are caught can be suspended or fired. But at many air traffic facilities the sleeping swaps are tolerated as long as they don't affect safety, controllers said.

"It has always been a problem," said former controller Rick Perl, who retired last year.

In 1991, a Denver television station caught controllers leaving a regional radar center during midnight shifts to sleep in their cars, sometimes for as long as five hours. A former internal watchdog at the Department of Transportation, Mary Schiavo, recalled her office investigating a similar incident in Texas during the early 1990s.

The problem of tired controllers was raised by the National Transportation Safety Board after a 2006 crash of a regional airliner in Lexington, Kentucky, that killed 49 of the 50 people aboard.

The lone controller in the airport tower was wrapping up a schedule that compressed five eight-hour shifts into four days. He cleared a regional jet for takeoff and failed to notice the plane make a wrong turn onto a runway that was too short.

The board cited pilot error as the cause of the accident, but noted the controller had slept only two of the previous 24 hours. (emphasis added)

Part of the fatigue problem is the way controllers schedule themselves, often trying to cram 5 shifts into 4 days to enjoy a 3 day weekend.  But in doing so, they schedule the night shift, the one most susceptible to drowsiness, only 8 hours after prior shift and at the end of the string of 5 shifts.  From the Washington Post:

One of the most popular schedules is known as the 2-2-1. Under it, a controller begins the workweek with two evening shifts, does a quick turnaround to a pair of day shifts and then does another quick turn before an overnight shift.

Those quick turnarounds — usually just eight hours — have been blamed for controller fatigue, but the 2-2-1 is favored by many controllers because it compacts their workweek and creates a weekend of at least three days.

Under the new guidelines, which took effect over the weekend, air traffic controllers are guaranteed (sic) a minimum of nine hours off between shifts, an increase of an hour over the previous policy.

The changes also include a ban on trading shifts with other controllers unless the minimum between shifts is met; prohibited swapping of regular days off in some circumstances; and an extension of the hours a manager is on duty until 1 a.m.

“We expect controllers to come to work rested and ready to work and take personal responsibility for safety in the control towers,” LaHood said Sunday. “We have zero tolerance for sleeping on the job.”

LaHood’s final remarks hit the point.  It is the responsibility of the individual controller to get enough sleep.  If the  schedule  he chooses precludes enough sleep or he simply fails to get enough sack time and reports to work fatigued, he should take himself off duty.  That’s what airline pilots do. 

But the union philosophy differs.  Don Brown, retired controller from the Atlanta Center in his blog Get the Flick critiques the FAA’s decision to add a second controller to 27 towers on the slow mid shift.  It goes to the heart of the union’s sense of entitlement to set the rules.  It goes to the heart of who controls the shop floor. 

Assigning two people to one control position will revert to one person on position when they decide to split the shift in half. (One works the first half while the other sleeps and then they swap.) Even if you try to manage it, history suggests that at some point in time, the situation will revert to splitting the shift. It’s human nature. Besides, you would need to assign a manager to the shift if you wanted to “manage” the situation. In other words, another body that you don’t have….  The “best” way to manage the problem is to have three controllers assigned the shift. Two to man the position while the other rests. And yes, rest does mean sleeping. (emphasis added)

Military controllers don’t sleep on watch.  There, it is more than a firing offense.  It is a court martial offense.  Perhaps it is the mental discipline of the military controllers at Andrews AFB that caught the incorrect spacing of Michelle Obama’s aircraft when it was handed off from the Warrenton FAA (NATCA represented) center yesterday and ordered it to abort the landing.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The FCC is up to No Good

Last Thursday, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial entitled “The FCC Muzzle” which spelled out the shenanigans the FCC intends to pull prior to next year’s presidential elections.  They seek to do an end run around the Citizen’s United decision and accomplish by regulatory fiat what Democrats in congress couldn’t do.  And that is to place requirements that top donors to organizations running ads be identified.  Current law requires only the organizations paying for the commercials to be identified.

In today’s politicized atmosphere, thuggish intimidation of Republican and conservative corporate support by leftists has become endemic.  It has reached absurd levels in Wisconsin where unions have threatened small businesses with boycotts if they don’t display signs supporting them.  The Journal’s editorial starts:

Congress tried and failed last year to limit corporate political speech in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, but the threat hasn't gone away. The new liberal hope is that the Federal Communications Commission will do the deed.

Liberal activists at the Media Access Project filed a petition last week asking the FCC to re-interpret decades of law to require that groups that run political ads disclose the names of their top donors. The 1934 Communications Act already requires any group paying for an ad—whether commercial or political—to disclose its identity as part of the ad. But liberals want President Obama's FCC to stretch this reading to require the on-air disclosure of any donor providing 25% or more of funding.

It continues with what the Journal considers the intent:

The goal here is to use "transparency" to intimidate businesses out of making political donations. Disclosure sounds good, but liberals have begun to wield it as a weapon to vilify business donors. Exhibit A was last year's smearing of Target Corp., after it donated to an independent group that ran ads supporting Minnesota GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. twisted the contribution into a claim that Target was "anti-gay" and organized a boycott of Target stores. The company stopped donations.

When the Citizens United decision was handed down, Senator Schumer went berserk and promised legislation (Disclose Act) to reveal contributors.  It failed.  So now the FCC has been given the task to carry Schumer’s water.

This is not the first time the ruse of “transparency” was attempted to intimidate and pressure political supporters.  It happened before in the Deep South in the 1950s.  There are parallels to what happened then and what is being happening now. Fortunately the Supreme Court then put a halt to it in NAACP v. Alabama which recognized that confidentiality was needed to prevent intimidation.

I used that case to write a Letter to the Editor of the Journal.  It ran Monday (4/4/11):

Sometimes Disclosure Begets Intimidation

The threat of intimidation against contributors that would come from mandatory FCC disclosure rules would have a chilling effect on the political process ("The FCC Muzzle," Review & Outlook, March 31).

Such was the case in the racially charged atmosphere of the mid-1950s, when the state of Alabama refused to allow the NAACP to do business in the state. The central issue was a requirement to force the NAACP to turn over its financial records and a list of its members and agents to the state, which the NAACP refused to do. In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (NAACP v. Alabama, 1958) for the NAACP, citing the need for privacy and the ability to freely associate to advance its beliefs and ideals.

Other organizations have modeled themselves after the NAACP to protect their members and contributors, most notably the National Right to Work Committee and its legal arm, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. This is done to shield its members and contributors from union intimidation.

Crosby Boyd
Sanibel, Fla.

Will this deter the FCC?  Probably not.  Recently they simply ignored the ruling of the 10th Circuit that Congress had not  granted them authority over the Internet (Comcast v. FCC) and simply went ahead and issued regulations anyway.  Fortunately we have a Supreme Court that recognizes the importance of the First Amendment and its fragility.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Will a Stalemate in Libya lead to the Nationalization of Western Oil Companies?

The papers today were vey light on news from Libya so my guess is the polling numbers are not going Obama’s way. A week ago the rebels were marching west toward Tripoli. Gaddafi’s troops were in retreat and under attack from US fighter bombers. Cruise missiles were destroying Libyan air defenses. But the tide turned last Monday when Gaddafi’s forces repulsed the rebels at Sirte and retook the oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Brega. Note: Brega currently is being contested by rebels but is still considered in government hands.

NATO has since taken operational command of combat operations and the US has announced it has withdrawn its attack aircraft and will restrict itself to only tanker, jamming and reconnaissance mission. NATO has said it will not arm the rebels and the President and Defense Secretary have publicly ruled out the use of ground forces.

So where does that leave the coalition? Not in very good shape. We backed a ragtag undisciplined group of rebels with no fighting experience and expected them to defeat a trained military. We expected a no fly zone to halt Gaddafi’s troops then stopped flying support missions ourselves. Neither battles nor wars are won by timid actions and this will unfortunately prove it.

It will probably end up a stalemate, but with Gaddafi’s troops chipping away at the rebels in Benghazi. Likely they will simply drift away with Gaddafi and his family still in power. What the coalition never contemplated was the downside of not achieving victory.

Dictators, even benevolent ones, don’t take kindly to JDAMs landing in their sleeping quarters. It is likely Gaddafi is more than a little bit ticked at having his sleep disturbed followed by announcements from Washington, Paris and London that he must go. Will he retaliate? Of course he will. This is the Middle East.

The most vulnerable assets coalition countries have in Libya are its oil companies.  They include -- US: ConocoPhillips, Marathon, Hess, Occidental and ExxonMobil, UK: BP and Anglo Dutch Shell and France: government owned TOTAL. Oil likely will continue to flow, but not under the ownership of the western oil companies. Likely substitutes to operate nationalized facilities are Chinese and Russians operators who are ever willing to take advantage of western missteps.

Lesson for the future: There is no substitute for victory.