FAA & ATC: How to mismanage a problem

FAA orders 2nd Controller on Night Shift

This story in the Washington Post (April 16, 2011) details how the FAA is responding to air traffic controllers falling asleep during the night shift.

The response seems completely wrong-headed — add a second controller — and seems to ignore lots of other problems here. Remember that the controllers were fired 30 years ago and replaced by a new set of controllers when PATCO, the Air Traffic Controller union, went on strike and then-President Ronals Reagan stood tough against them. So there are probably a large number of controllers who have done their 30 years and are ready to retire. It would be interesting to know (1) what percentage of active controllers started in 1981-82, and (2) how quickly the newer controllers are coming up in the ranks.

But beyond that, there are some interestingly stupid quotes in this article:

…Mary Schiavo, a former Transportation Department inspector general, said sanctioned napping is still a nonstarter.

“I just don’t think Americans are going to buy that,” she said. “If you come to work for an eight-hour day, you ought to be able to stay awake for it.

I think Americans would be okay with that if it keeps planes from crashing into each other.

[FAA Administrator Randy] Babbitt has said the increase in known errors is due to better reporting…

Well, that doesn’t give me any confidence that they are willing to recognize, and treat, systemic problems. This is a real denial that any solution is required

It has been known for decades that fatigue is rampant among controllers. FAA rules forbid any sleeping on the job, even during breaks. Employees who violate those rules can be fired.

So you have to take a rest break (under the rules), but you’re not allowed to rest (under the same rules). This sounds like a rule imposed by an accountant or an HR staffer who has no idea what the workers are doing. And it aligns with the thinking behind Mary Shiavo’s comment.

… controllers are being added to the overnight shift. Not only are controllers at those facilities likely to be working night shifts more often, they are also likely to be putting in more overtime since the FAA doesn’t plan to increase the number of controllers assigned to the airports.

FAA management recognizes that they don’t have enough controllers to service flight safety, but they won’t staff up so that there are enough controllers. They’ll just make everyone do more work. That’s a familiar refrain throughout our economy, isn’t it?

I wonder if Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” cuts FAA ATC funding even further.

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One Comment

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  1. As if on cue, the FAA is ending “a scheduling system which often puts controllers back on the job after just eight hours off.”

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