In my spare time, I'm working on becoming a connoisseur of interpreting Randy Babbitt's facial expressions. And watching an ABC report last week, I'm pretty sure the glazed-eyed look I saw on Mr. Babbitt's mug essentially said, "I can't believe my job requires me to sit here and answer such stupid @#$%*(@ questions from the press." The question in question was what Babbitt intended to do about the tower and ground controller who fell asleep on the midshift at Reagan National last week. Umm buy him an alarm clock? Instead, Babbitt said he was outraged, an understandable response whose underlying meaning might suggest he was thinking that if you're gonna work the mids, learn how to snooze lightly enough so as not to appear in a lead story on the evening news.
Let's dispense with the safety aspect of this ridiculous incident first. Was there a breach of safety? Yes, a little, the difference between 99.0099 and 99.0098 or like driving 59 MPH in a 55. The principle risk is a cluttered runway or some rogue light bulb changer dashing around in an unlighted truck. But since maintenance crews tend not to do that given the consequences, the risk of this is vanishingly small. A runway excursion or other emergency is also a small risk, but if the TRACON is awaiting an IFR cancellation, that one's covered, too.
To the typical ignoramus in a working press newsroom, controllers "guide" airplanes to the runway and they seem to imagine pilots being helpless without ATC. ("You're a little left, too far left you're going low ABORT! ABORT! Oh my God!...") Diane Sawyer imagined how horrible it must have been for those pilots. Probably true, for the flight that went around for lack of a landing clearance, they got to the hotel 15 minutes late. Why the very idea. Personally, I'm cheered by the fact that two people flying a Boeing or an Airbus can actually fly a visual pattern, navigate and still put the airplane down on the centerline in the touchdown zone. Just think of how challenged they must have been. What airmanship! Where do we find such men and women?
So what should Babbitt and his boss, SecDOT Ray LaHood do here? While Babbitt is probably trying to move along meaningful work across his desk, LaHood promises to review staffing levels, maybe doubling them at some towers where a solo controller now handles the midshift. The review is fair enough, but the staff up almost certainly is not. I agree with what Bill Voss, a former controller and president of the Flight Safety Foundation said: "It's not outrageous for the agency to avoid putting a second six-figure employee into a tower where they may only work a dozen airplanes in a shift."
In a rare moment of clarity from the political class, Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House transportation committee, called LaHood's decision to add a second controller to the midnight shift "a typical bureaucratic response." I'd call it a typical political response, since in order to avoid the staff increase, at least across the board at all such facilities, LaHood will have to step up and explain some things to the public that it may not like to hear.
For instance, this: Controllers separate and sequence. They do not "guide" airplanes and they certainly don't land them. Secretary LaHood might use this incident as an opportunity to educate the public that we live in an age of limits. We can't afford to throw people and money at every problem to mitigate a ten-to-the-ninth risk factor. Some things you just have to live with and this is probably one of them. The FAA says about 30 facilities staff the mids with a single controller. As they always have, those controllers sometimes doze off. It happens. They crank up the radio and interphone volume, wake up when they need to work and the job gets done. If it doesn't get done, are lives at risk? Not significantly. (Arguments that the Lexington, Kentucky accident may have been prevented by a second controller are unconvincing because one of the two probably would have been napping anyway.) Doubling the staff won't increase safety commensurate with cost, in my view.
At DCA, the single best (weak) argument for a second mids controller is that Babbitt called the area "critical airspace." But another way of describing that is "politically sensitive" airspace. We've beaten this horse before, so no need to explain it further. Traffic wise, DCA has about 750 to 800 operations a day, ranking it about number 30 in tower ops, behind Long Beach and Daytona Beach, ahead of Fort Lauderdale and Anchorage. Those ops are obviously loaded between 6 a.m. and midnight.
For those who insist that a solo midshift has to stay awake, there are technological ways to do that. Put a five-minute dead-man switch with a piercing alarm on the comm panel or wire the Center or TRACON into the tower and turn the entire airspace over to them, including CFR dispatch. Throwing more people at the problem as a primary response is just what it always has been: Featherbedding and a big hammer to strike a tiny nail.
-- Paul Bertorelli
The last time this happened at DCA, the controller had gone outside and forgotten his keycard to get back in, but these days, he would have to forget both his card and his cellphone for that excuse to work. So, the investigation revealed what everyone suspected: The controller, a supervisor with 20 years of experience, had drifted off shortly after midnight, while working his fourth consecutive overnight shift (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.).
I can understand Randy Babbitt's statement on Thursday that he was "outraged," but I'm not so sure that's the most useful response. The controllers union has been saying for years that it's a bad idea to leave lone controllers in towers to work overnight shifts. Sure, they have a vested interest in boosting staffing. But circadian rhythms are powerful things, and it's just not natural to expect humans to stay up all night alone, with not much going on, in a big empty tower, and fight off the urge to sleep 100 percent of the time. Granted, the controller on duty no doubt knew that was what the job required, and accepted the task. Thus "outrage" is understandable, but it still fails to address the real issues.
Ray LaHood had a quicker and more pro-active response. He told the FAA on Wednesday to up the staffing at DCA to two controllers on the overnight shift, and asked for a study of staffing levels at other airports around the country. Two controllers all night long is certainly overkill for facilities that have just a handful of operations overnight. But assigning a lone controller goes against common sense. Maybe the best solution would be a third choice -- close the tower overnight and establish new procedures, such as Class E-surface airspace managed remotely by the nearest ARTCC. But for now, LaHood's action at least attempts to address the problem, and it's more useful than "outrage."
-- Mary Grady