Wonder Not Why ATC Sleeps-It’s 2 a.m.

George's Point of View

There is a lot of buzz going on right now with so many air traffic controllers caught sleeping on the job. Everyone is lowering the boom on these individuals, and perhaps it is rightly so. And yet it seems to me that it is not a complete coincidence that suddenly in 2011, multiple air traffic controllers are caught sleeping on the job. Has this never happened before? Has no one ever noted it?

This is in addition to an increase in controller errors. However, the increase in controller errors is (supposedly) a statistical glitch–not more errors actually but more reportage due to a new non-punative reporting system.

It makes me wonder what has led to the circumstance of lone air traffic controllers manning all-night shifts. Has this been going on for decades? Or is this a recent development of economic cutbacks and our changing fuel economy, and our highly qualified personnel may be fighting to keep a position even on the swing shift, as job alternatives dwindle.

Why is there an evening shift at all when the airlines have been combining flights and canceling flights, and rearranging flights and consolidating fights for economy’s sake? If the fact that an airport with minimal evening traffic chooses to have a lone overnight ATC shift, the act is practically a lagniappe. And if that is the case, then how sad it is that an act of extended service has turned to bite those offering the service.

We do not put a lifeguard on the beach during the night when there are no swimmers, when swimming in dark waters is foolish. And yet, if we did place a lifeguard on that beach, we would not expect him to sleep. But would we expect him to stare out at the waters all night with no concession to human biorhythm? Is that not somewhat cruel? By the way, FAA’s rules forbid a controller from doing anything not directly related to air traffic control.

When I hear the head of the FAA Air Traffic Organization Hank Krakowski has stepped down, it leads me to suspect that there is some scheduling pattern or policy that is directly attributable to him, something he did to disrupt the culture of air traffic control, that may be behind the significant coincidence of six (or more) sleeping ATControllers. I do not know if his stepping down is typical bureaucratic scapegoating, if he is doing the honorable thing because he’s in charge and the buck stops with him, or if he is truly responsible for some policy change that has led to the sleeping ATC.

There are solutions, but they won’t be solutions today’s citizen of “instant everything” will like. There will be either the hiring more than just two controllers to turn night to day; or there will be (eventually) curtailing night flights and a loss of 24 hour conveniences.

Originally posted by George Hatcher on Friday, April 15th, 2011 at 2:34