Asleep in the Control Tower

You likely already know the story of two aircraft that had to land at Washington’s Reagan International Airport on March 23rd without the assistance of the control tower due to a sleeping air traffic controller.  Since then, 3 other incidents have been reported as well.  There is much debate about what to do to prevent such incidents in the future.

My solution?  Fire the ones who slept.  And while you are at it, make sure all current and prospective new controllers know the same will happen to them if they sleep and put passenger’s lives in danger.  Harsh?   Just think about what is on the line here, how awful the consequences could have been, and perhaps my approach seems less so.

I should say at the outset that I have tremendous respect for air traffic controllers.  As a non-current but licensed pilot, I have a very good understanding of the work they do and the challenges they face, especially in airspace like we have here in the New York area.  It is an extremely tough job in many airports, the stakes are high, and it requires a special talent and commitment to do it successfully.  (for an interesting and reasonably accurate perspective, see the movie “Pushing Tin”).

That said, contrary to what you may think, the union that represents air traffic controllers is actually relishing these incidents.  Why?  They see opportunity.  Because instead of blaming the mistakes on the controllers themselves, they are blaming them on the Federal Aviation Administration and the work rules required by the FAA.

Let’s have a look at those work rules.  Controllers are in what the industry calls the “on position” for 90-120 minutes, after which time they have a 30 minute break before they return (I guess during this time they are in the “off position”).   Shifts are 8 hours, and there is a generous required turnaround time until their next shift initiates.

The union, speaking as if the controllers bear no responsibility whatsoever for having slept when they were supposed to be working and putting hundreds or thousands of lives in danger, is now pushing for “worktime naps” during which they be allowed to sleep for up to 2 hours while being paid in full.  To the FAA’s credit, Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood has said “There is no excuse for air traffic controllers to be sleeping on the job”.  He put the blame exactly where it belongs, on the shoulders of those controllers who fell asleep.

We should always be reviewing safety procedures in our transportation system, but we should not automatically assume (as the press and liberals tend to) that if something goes wrong, it was the “system’s fault” instead of a “person’s fault”.  Much more often than not, the problem can be found in the person, not the system.  It seems that we as a society often find a way of lessening our emphasis on personal responsibility, and seek to place blame on a bureaucracy or a set of rules.  It assumes human perfection, and that if the human does something wrong, the system must have made the human do it wrong.  We see this manifest itself in our society most prominently in our litigation and tort system, where clever attorneys argue that the “system” or product caused the accident, not the person.

Again, to 99% of our air traffic controllers, my hat is off to you.  To those of you sleeping in the tower, please get a better night or day’s sleep before coming to work, or find another profession.

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