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.

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