WASHINGTON – Publicly fuming, the FAA chief collected Thursday the resignation of the head of the U.S. air traffic system, doubled controller staffing at more than two dozen airports and ordered a sweeping review of the entire system that ensures planes fly safely, as the government sought to reassure the public that air travel is safe despite at least four instances of controllers sleeping on the job.
But present and former controllers told the Associated Press that grueling work schedules and the design of the job itself – sitting in a dark room at night waiting for pilots to call – have made taking naps on the job necessary, even if unauthorized by the FAA. One whistle-blower complained to the Transportation Department that cots can be found in one radar center, most often with controllers asleep in them.
The National Transportation Safety Board warned the FAA after a deadly 2006 air crash that controllers’ schedules were creating unsafe situations in which they were going into work after only a few hours of sleep. But little had changed until this week when Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt said he was immediately adding a second controller on overnight shifts at 26 airports and a radar facility that had been staffed with a lone controller. Presumably the second controller provides a margin of safety if the first falls asleep.
Babbitt’s order came hours after the pilot of a plane transporting a critically ill passenger was unable to raise the single controller working at 2 a.m. Wednesday in the tower of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada. The FAA said the controller, who was out of communication for 16 minutes, was sleeping. Controllers at a regional radar facility in California assisted the plane, which landed safely.
Hank Krakowski, the head of the agency’s Air Traffic Organization, resigned Thursday and a replacement search was under way, Babbitt said.
“Over the last 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,” Babbitt said in a statement Thursday. “This conduct must stop immediately.”
Babbitt and National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi met privately Thursday with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to assure them that FAA is on top of the problem.
Four cases of controllers sleeping when they were supposed to be directing air traffic have been disclosed since March 23. The first occurred when two airliners landed at Washington’s Reagan National Airport without assistance from the tower after pilots’ repeated attempts to reach the lone air traffic supervisor on duty failed. The supervisor later acknowledged to investigators that he had fallen asleep.
Dozing off at one’s post is unusual, but not unheard of, said seven current and retired controllers interviewed by the AP. Six of them acknowledged briefly falling asleep while working alone at night at least once in their careers.
Much more common is taking a nap on purpose, they said. When more than one controller is assigned to the “midnight” shift, which usually runs from about 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., one controller will work two positions while the other one sleeps and then they switch off, controllers said.
FAA regulations forbid sleeping at work, even during breaks. Controllers who are caught can be suspended or fired. But at most air traffic facilities the sleeping swaps are tolerated as long as they don’t affect safety, controllers said.