ATC Snooze Breaks Aren't Likely
If NATCA, the controller's union, was entertaining the slightest notion that the FAA would approve its members reporting for midshifts with jammies and blankets in tow, I'd say that idea is probably a dead letter by now. Last week, Rep. John Mica, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, told Reuters that he believes NATCA is too powerful and, in keeping with a wider trend of confronting public workers and unions, he wants provisions to make it easier to fire controllers who make mistakes. He doesn't sound like a man who's in the mood to say okay to sleep breaks for drowsy tower operators. Further, SecDot Ray LaHood won't even discuss the subject.
Case closed, it looks like. This is too bad because now the FAA is faced with spending more money to have two tired controllers on duty or perhaps trying to adjust schedules to give controllers more rest between shifts. I actually think the sleep break idea is a good one, but it's unsalable in the current political climate. So we have yet another example of politics rather practicality driving procedures and safety.
Not that the controller workforce has necessarily distinguished itself in presenting a professional front. Last week also brought a brief report from the NTSB offering details on the incident in Jacksonville, in which a supe and TRACON controller tried to—and maybe did—resolve a NORDO incident by vectoring a Southwest 737 into close contact with a Cirrus. Real close, it turns out. DOT's LaHood also announced that the controller or supe involved was fired.
The NTSB's analysis indicated a separation of .1 of a mile and vertical of 100 feet, which is essentially zero for vertical. When I read that, I thought the NSTB has misstated it, meaning 1000 feet vertical. Nope, said the spokesman, it was 100. Just for reference, .1 mile is 600 feet or about five wingspans of a 737. In the early news reports, 1.2 miles lateral was reported. One report said 1000 feet of vertical, which would have obviated the separation bust. The NTSB also pointed out that neither the ATC nor the Southwest crew went through the formality of declaring visual separation. So technically, it sounds like sort of a radar-vectored, TCAS-assisted mutual pilot deviation and operational error.
Just for the heck of it, I circulated the NTSB's findings among my informal board of retired and current controllers. I asked them for a verdict on the controller's judgment. The general thinking seems to be it was idiotic and that seems to reflect at least vein of sentiment in many ATC facilities.
"All that said, at least four seasoned aviation professionals (the controller, his supervisor that actually worked the intercept, and the two airline pilots) all apparently thought this was a good idea. I'd be real curious to know what they thought they were going to achieve," said one of my correspondents. He pointed out if they were trying to determine pilot incapacitation or something else observable, there are better choices—like a military intercept. As I said previously, there was just no obvious quid for this pro quo.
And what of the pilots? If you were asked to do this, would you (a) do it, and (b), how close would you get? I have flown passengers for hire and if I was asked to help out in this situation, I'll freely admit that I probably would have, although I'm not sure I would now. Although the risk is small, it's still real and I just don't like the idea of doing that with 130 paying passengers aboard. The standard of care should be better than that. This is not the same as an airliner being vectored to spot a crash on the ground or something similar. Here, ATC encouraged an intercept with no clue as to how close the crew would actually get. To me, 600 feet is just too close, given the payback of maybe resolving a NORDO.
There was no indication if the Southwest pilots face anything other than suspension of flight duties. I haven't been able to find out if any enforcement action is contemplated. I don't think they should, frankly. But nor are they heroes, in my book. As for the controller and supe, judgments like these hardly help the cause of ATC professionalism.