Sleeping controllers prompt changes at the FAA

 - May 1, 2011, 4:40 AM

The fallout from what began with a single air traffic controller falling asleep on an overnight shift at Washington Reagan National Airport on March 23 continued to cascade late last month when the FAA unilaterally ended a practice whereby controllers voluntarily worked grueling shifts to accrue long weekends.

Along the way, Hank Krakowski, the head of the FAA Air Traffic Organization (ATO), resigned, the practice of having some control towers manned overnight by only one person was ended, and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt and National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) president Paul Rinaldi began a nationwide “call to action” tour of ATC facilities. At the same time, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Babbitt on April 17 announced changes to controller scheduling practices that will allow controllers more time for rest between shifts.

Krakowski was ousted April 14 after an incident the day before when a controller at Reno-Tahoe International Airport fell asleep while a medical flight carrying an ill patient was trying to land. The medical flight pilot was in communication with the Northern California Tracon and landed safety. The controller, who was out of communication for approximately 16 minutes, was suspended while the FAA investigated.

Call to Action

In announcing Krakowski’s resignation, Babbitt said that over the past few weeks “we have seen examples of unprofessional conduct on the part of a few individuals that have rightly caused the traveling public to question our ability to ensure their safety.”

While Babbitt praised Krakowski as “a dedicated professional” and thanked him for his service, he added, “I am committed to maintaining the highest level of public confidence, and that begins with strong leadership.” Babbitt immediately appointed David Grizzle, the FAA’s chief counsel, to acting ATO chief operating officer until a permanent replacement is found.

Some have charged that the problems within ATO go beyond fatigued controllers, and critics paint a picture of an organization demoralized by years of turmoil and change. They blame the miasma on Krakowski and his predecessor, Russell Chew, both seen as airline people out of step with the ATC culture.

Shortly after the incident in Reno, LaHood and Babbitt announced that effective immediately the FAA would place an additional air traffic controller on the midnight shift at 27 control towers around the country that were staffed with only one controller during that time.

Next, Babbitt and Rinaldi launched the nationwide call to action on ATC safety and professionalism. The next week, with members of their senior leadership teams, they began visiting ATC facilities around the country to reinforce the need for all air traffic personnel to adhere to the highest professional standards.

In announcing the changes to scheduling practices, LaHood said, “We expect controllers to come to work and take personal responsibility for safety in the control towers. We have zero tolerance for sleeping on the job.”

Added Babbitt, “Research shows us that giving people the chance for even an additional hour of rest during critical periods in a schedule can improve work performance and reduce the potential for fatigue.”