More Money = Less Snooze?

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Only the U.S. government could, in response to a labor situation in which the job is so boring and low-key that workers can't stay awake to do it, double the workforce. That's essentially where we are now with the sleeping controller fiasco, as the FAA announced adding a second controller to what had been solo midshifts at 27 facilities. In its press release, the FAA didn't say what this little pot sweetener will cost, but I think all in, the extra people have to cost $100,000 each, so call it somewhere between $2 and $3 million in an FAA budget totaling $18 billionish. Barely coffee money, right?

Maybe. But what does it get us in terms of enhanced safety? I think most reasonably informed people would say close to nothing. (Unless you place high value on stories like these staying out of the news.) At the very most, this is incremental safety—investing a bunch of money to nudge the safety needle the width of a human hair, if that. Once the heat is off this ridiculous situation, it will resurface in a year or so when the mainstream media discovers that despite two controllers on the midshift, one still fell asleep because he was on position while the other guy took a nap. Then what? Three controllers for a midshift in a tower working one airplane an hour, if that? A barking dog? A headset equipped with random electroshock probes?

Acknowledging the obvious, this is a purely political response. But what to do? I was hoping for a more creative solution. For instance, some of those facilities should just close at night and turn the airspace over to the appropriate center or TRACON. Sure, it can't provide runway separation, but with one airplane an hour, what's to separate? Clearances and releases have been done for years through remote communications outlets with good results. Pilots can actually taxi and find runways at night without federal assistance. If monitoring is deemed so important, install cameras so the remote facility can keep an eye on the airport. In the last center I visited on a midshift, the workforce wasn't exactly overwhelmed with stuff to do, but there were enough people to keep everyone awake.

I thought Randy Babbitt's initial response to this was a good one. The center or TRACON handling the flight would rattle the tower on a landline before the handoff. If there was no response, the crew would be so informed and could decide whether to divert or just land. I doubt if many would divert, frankly. In fact, this is what happened at Washington Reagan on March 23, during the first sleeping controller incident. An FAA source sent us a summary briefing of the DCA incident. Essentially, when the Potomac Consolidated TRACON controller couldn't raise the tower, he decided to treat DCA as an uncontrolled airport and told the crew of an inbound American Airlines flight as much. The crew replied that it was fine with the uncontrolled airport idea, it landed and that was it. Simple, direct problem solving. Good initiative. No loss of separation. Admittedly, it does not address the professional dereliction of a six-figure salary government employee sleeping on the job. Although if he or she weren't there in the first place, neither would the issue be.

The more recent Reno-Tahoe incident played out about the same, although perhaps with a more reluctant pilot. When the pilot of an inbound medical flight with "a very sick patient" (his words) aboard couldn't raise the tower, he orbited for five or six minutes trying to tease a landing clearance out of the tower, whose operator was asleep. I don't find that an unreasonable decision, but it does show pilots view these things differently. Sick patient or not, I wouldn't have bothered with the orbit—just go straight to GO and treat the airport as uncontrolled. But then I've flown a lot of IFR into non-towered airports and I'm comfortable with it.

One thing controllers do in this situation that's not helpful is to use the phrase "landing will be at your own risk." They do that because the phrase is right there in the 7110.65 requiring them to do so. When a pilot hears that, does he or she think "risk as in bending metal or risk as in enforcement action? Or both?" It's neither, of course, because every landing is at your own risk. All the controller can do is assure runway separation and given the number of incursions, even that's not bulletproof.

Adding 27 more midshift controllers won't change that.

Comments (55)

You know, I just gotta believe there exists a "H/R" resolution to this. Hire part-time controllers to handle "graveyard" shifts, maybe? I don't know. But this sleeping controller problem is as old as sleeping military sentrys on post.

So, waddaya gonna do, flog 'em?

Posted by: Phil Derosier | April 14, 2011 7:28 AM    Report this comment

This is purely a political point. It's been scientifically proven that most people cannot stay awake during a midnight shift. I have worked more than a few "mids" in my day and I can tell you that even if the place is hopping, I have found it extremely difficult to stay awake.

Jolt, Mt. Dew, Pepsi, cookies, etc. - take your pick...that may be the least that's what worked for me when I worked "mids" many moons ago.

Posted by: R. Doe | April 14, 2011 7:37 AM    Report this comment

I think the real problem is the rotating shift work. I did that many years ago and it plays havoc with your body clock. I don't understand why the FAA doesn't just establish controllers on 3 shifts and let everyone fall into a natural rhythm.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | April 14, 2011 8:25 AM    Report this comment

If you fall asleep while on guard in the military, you get shot. If you fall asleep in the private sector, you get fired. If you fall asleep at in the Government, you get an assistant???

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 14, 2011 8:36 AM    Report this comment

OMG, to hear AC360 describe it an airplane is in mortal danger if the controller isnt awake to "control" the incoming flight.
The reason the controller fell asleep, because there was nothing going on, for hours, so, the chance of colliding with another airplane go down significantly if there are no other airplanes around.
Does nobody brief the media idiots about anything?

Posted by: Ray Toews | April 14, 2011 10:43 AM    Report this comment

After having flown many solo all night flights, as well as some two pilot all-nighters, I'd definitely say having someone else with you is a real help to staying awake. What if the feds considered staffing the midnight shift with one controller, and one student in an ATC program. Perhaps offering college credit, a guaranteed interview, and perhaps even meager pay to the college kid would be enough to entice them, and it would be much better experience than they'll get in the classroom. If nothing else, the night shift guys would have someone to play cards with in the off time!

Posted by: Josh Johnson | April 14, 2011 11:21 AM    Report this comment

I haven't heard anyone talk about the controller's possible responsibility for this incident. I flew night freight for years and I found that the only thing that comes close to keeping you awake on the job is adequate sleep before the shift. Did the controller sleep during the hours before his shift started or did he get involved in running errands, etc? Was he taking advantage of his daytime hours off to do his own business?


Posted by: Linda Pendleton | April 14, 2011 11:41 AM    Report this comment

The rattler doesn't help. Two evenings, two days, and a mid. Two short turn a rounds in one week.

Posted by: Bill Edmondson | April 14, 2011 2:36 PM    Report this comment

Jerry Plante, you're 100% correct. The reason, I believe, for "rotating shifts" is because ATC's personnel assignment, viewpoints and strategies are a remnant of a wartime military.

Posted by: Phil Derosier | April 14, 2011 6:20 PM    Report this comment

Well average controller salary is somewhere between 120k (BLS) and 160 (Mica comment today). So its worse than you think Paul. On top of that next year the FAA is requesting $160 million for raises to controllers.

Somehow today's announcement by pro-union administrator Babbit joining with the Head of NATCA about a trip out to the troops to remind them to stay awake reeks of flying the flag to convince congress that "well, we're doing all we can".

This couple with lets stop aviation industry by not working any new projects has me thorougly convinced this organization cannot neither manage their work nor their employees.

I'm typically against the "git rid of the gummit and lawyer" bandwagon but scenarios like these convince me this organization is incapable of change.

Posted by: Rob "daSlob" Schaffer | April 14, 2011 7:29 PM    Report this comment

Looks like the link to the ABC News story which included the Reid quote didn't make it. Maybe just the meat of the link? (if there's nothing after the double-hyphen, never mind) --

Posted by: Steven Brecher | April 14, 2011 7:30 PM    Report this comment

How bout a 150 decibel siren we can activate with mic clicks! Thar should do the trick!

Posted by: Josh Johnson | April 14, 2011 9:10 PM    Report this comment

If there is so little traffic the controllers can't stay away, then I say close the tower during those hours. Spokane/GEG has airlines landing at night with the tower closed. Why double your costs when you can eliminate them. In this time of budget cuts is no time to increase costs unnecessarily. As pilots we all know that night ops can be safely flown at night with no tower.

If some controllers have trouble staying awake at night, put them on day shift.

If they insisted on double staffing at night, make the second person a minimum wage teenager whose sole job is to keep the tower controller awake.

Posted by: JIM DUNN | April 15, 2011 12:48 AM    Report this comment

How bout a 150 decibel siren we can activate with mic clicks! Thar should do the trick! ;-)
posted by Josh Johnson on April 14, 2011

Actually, I think pilots have access to one of those. It's called squawking 7700.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | April 15, 2011 7:59 AM    Report this comment

I like a combination of Josh and Jim's ideas - a PCL box hooked up to a shock collar might work, or an intern with a sharp stick. But I have to agree that throwing another controller at the situation is hardly the best solution. Think the idea of a PCL box and horn might be a good one. Certainly cheaper than staffing, and a good way for pilots to get the tower's attention. Would let a pilot ping the tower in the event of a mic/comm cord problem (i.e. quasi nordo) that would be more noticeable than trying to flash your landing lights at the tower.

Posted by: Ken Anderson | April 15, 2011 8:17 AM    Report this comment

I vote for Paul's solutions...turn it over to TRACON or put in a loud squawker on the landline.

But if you started using reason based cost-benefit analysis on things like this, where would it end? We'd have half of our current government workers and a quarter of the private sector unemployed.

Posted by: John Wilson | April 15, 2011 8:59 AM    Report this comment

Anyone suggest a $200 CCTV camera run to the nearest night shift security guard? Too simple to be elegant?

Posted by: Jon Devine | April 15, 2011 10:58 AM    Report this comment

Or simpler still, have said night shift guard monitor the tower frequency?

Posted by: Jon Devine | April 15, 2011 11:07 AM    Report this comment

Put a button on the controllers desk that he has to press every 5 minutes to prove he is awake. That is what trains have, and if they don't push it in 6 the train comes to a stop on it's own. Just make it set of a bell like a fire alarm. Make their PTT switch activate it also so they don't have to mess with when they are busy. No major expenses, no new people, and effective.

Posted by: Barrett Roessler | April 17, 2011 8:04 AM    Report this comment

Put a button on the controllers desk that he has to press every 5 minutes to prove he is awake. That is what trains have, and if they don't push it in 6 the train comes to a stop on it's own. Just make it set of a bell like a fire alarm. Make their PTT switch activate it also so they don't have to mess with when they are busy. No major expenses, no new people, and effective.

Posted by: Barrett Roessler | April 17, 2011 8:03 AM    Report this comment

Simplest solution from a government perspective:

Throw other people's money at the problem. Don't think up a creative solution that you might have to explain to the citizens, or the unions, or your employees -- just do "something" and the easiest thing to do is throw money -- ours.

A little leadership in Washington would go a long way. Don't just take the easy solution.

Posted by: Kingsley Hill | April 17, 2011 10:24 AM    Report this comment

The government solution is to extend the controllers off time from 8 hours to 9 hours between shifts, so they get more rest. Try 16 hours between shifts like a good majority of the working world. If you have to hire more controllers, fire Babbit and La Hood to help offset the costs, they aren't doing anything anyway.

Posted by: Edward Covill | April 18, 2011 7:04 AM    Report this comment

The decision to staff an underutilized tower is a political one borne of ignorance. WE--pilots--need to inform the public that we do not need ATC to safely land an aircraft. WE need to inform the public that while ATC performs a valuable service during peak traffic hours and bad weather, even then we do not need a controller's help to safely land an aircraft. WE need to inform the public that we are all trained and must demonstrate mastery of the skills and procedures required to approach and land at a non-towered airport.

I've written a letter to my local paper containing the details.

Posted by: Mark Sletten | April 18, 2011 8:35 AM    Report this comment

Controllers are their own worst enemies. One of the few things the FAA let us vote on was the schedule and the younger controllers always skewed the vote for the rotating shift which allows one to get off at 8AM on their Friday and not come back until 4PM on their Monday.

Before all the judgements put yourself in the controllers shoes, think of the havoc a two night, two day and either another day or midshift per week would play with your family life.

Ray - 25 years ATC Tower.

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 18, 2011 9:08 AM    Report this comment

Ray has it right. I was an enroute controller for 13 years (until the strike) and the issue was not the midwatch per se, it was the compressed schedule. With one exception you worked a different shift each day. Typically 4-12, 2-10, 8-4, 7-3, 12-8 A.M. (or 7:00 A.M to 3:00 P.M.if you did not work the midwatch) There were variations for weekends but that was pretty much what you worked. At our facillity you worked on a crew and your days off rotated backwards one day each month. I don't think my biological clock ever got used to the schedule. The exception was what they called "Crazy Crew" when your crew actually worked 8-4 Monday through Friday for a month.
Part of the justification as stated by Ray was to get a longer weekend, The main reason was to avoid working the high traffic periods every day. A month on "Crazy Crew" was pretty stressful especially during thunderstorm season.
There was always an area supervisor or watch supervisor present so dozing was rare. I only observed someone doze off a couple of times and anyone that did was immediately the target of some very rude practical jokes and almost never did it again.

Posted by: Joe Scalet | April 18, 2011 9:41 AM    Report this comment

In my area, there are rumors that games of high stake poker taking place in the tower. Adrenaline is probably helping these controller stay awake while they burn the midnight oil.

Posted by: Andre Abreu | April 18, 2011 10:10 AM    Report this comment

Back in 1968 I started training at Denver ARTCC (Center) on $500 per month when air traffic control was "harder".. we actually had to push "shrimp boats" across the radar screen. Now those controllers have computers to do most of the "work" and are paid some $10,000 a month. Many (or possibly most) don't have college degrees! The union, ATCA, justifies that due to their being "unskilled" at doing anything else.
As for the rotating shifts (two swings, two days and a mid) each week, which is also rotated every four or six weeks to move days off through the week, this was justified partly by the theory that "rush hour" traffic should be shared by all controllers. Also, and not insignificantly, the controllers are paid 10% bonus for night hour shifts and 25% additional bonus for Sunday and holiday shifts. Of course they all want to "share" in those benefits, right?

Posted by: Loren Otto | April 18, 2011 10:29 AM    Report this comment

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the alleged "Draconian" work rules that prohibit controllers using any sort of entertainment device to help get through the endless hours of inactivity. Perhaps a video game, a local or satellite entertainment radio , or some other source of mental stimulation would help someone alone in a dark tower stay awake.

Of course this would not be consistent with the FAA's alleged motto - "We're not happy 'till you're not happy".

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 18, 2011 11:03 AM    Report this comment

If I recall, one reason why the controllers back in President Reagan's day went on strike was because of the crazy shifts they had to work. The shifts were supposed to keep the controllers competent in working slow and well as busy schedules. It had nothing to do with longer days off. It's not normal for a person's mental state of mine, or body processes to be working three different shifts. One day you're on day shift, next couple of days you're on swing shift, next couple of days you're working graveyard shift. How can your body know when it's supposed to sleep, or eat, or sit on the pot? You readers should try it some time. It feels like you've got permanent jet lag. You're always feeling "rummy." Those schedules are supposed to give us wide awake controllers? Why not do a monthly rotation of the shifts instead of what they have now? That would at least allow some normalcy of body function.

Posted by: Douglas Rodrigues | April 18, 2011 11:57 AM    Report this comment

If these airports have so little overnight activity that the controllers are falling asleep, then maybe the solution is to just close the tower between midnight and 6 AM and have the field become uncontrolled during those hours. Sarasota, FL (KSRQ), a class C airport, does just that and I don't notice planes falling out of the sky in their vicinity.

Only the US government would decide that the solution is to put even more people on the job.

Posted by: Michele Davis | April 18, 2011 12:05 PM    Report this comment

In the military you NEVER put one man out on a post alone....NEVER. When cops started patroling with only one officer per car I thought it was a mistake. You aren't supposed to scuba dive without a partner. Part 121 and some 135 cockpits require TWO pilots. So what is everyone so up in arms about over this decision ? Let's see our economy is in the crapper and everyone seems to agree it's largely because of jobs. So now we create a job of adding an extra pair of eyes and nobody wants to pay for it. Do I have that right ? In the cockpit I fly at work I cannot count the number of times having that extra set of eyes REALLY made a difference.

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | April 18, 2011 12:44 PM    Report this comment

Mr Palma,

While I agree with the first assertion you made - that an extra pair of eyes might help - I disagree that making more government jobs is good for the economy.

I think government jobs and government spending is actually a burden on the real economy. More government spending means more trouble for the actual producers in our country.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 18, 2011 12:55 PM    Report this comment

To Mark Fraser and Paul Mulwitz , your comments had me lol. To Jerry Plante 7600 is the lost communications squawk code. I use the memory trick 76 radio needs fix. Excellent commentary, I think this is a very over blown problem with so many simple solutions, it must be a slow week for the media.

Posted by: Steve M | April 18, 2011 4:56 PM    Report this comment

I juat know that the pillow hidden in the tower was for "back" support and the blanket was for those nights when you could not get the AC right.

Of course some of us who found themselves nodding off took the time to crank the radios up full volume and the shout boxes. The ringing phone was a no brainer, always woke most people up.

Ahh, the good old days.


Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 18, 2011 6:12 PM    Report this comment

"Although if he or she weren't there in the first place, neither would the issue be. "

Exactly! Just how much separation is required if there is no traffic? A common thread in all of these is that the shift was quiet. The tower here closes at 10pm. If the last airline leaves at 10:01, it contacts center for IFR release. If it leaves VFR, the pilot announces, looks, and goes.

The key to this is to eliminate the overnight shift if it is not necessary.

(Of course in this case necessary probably means that the union requires it.)

Airplanes can come and go with no separation if there is no other traffic.

Posted by: MIKE HAND | April 18, 2011 8:44 PM    Report this comment

Mike... The problem is that at most larger airports the traffic comes in spurts or at least it did when I was working. FEDEX & UPS fly a lot of aircraft at night and are a major reason to have controllers on duty after midnight.

The ARTCC works on the one in one out principle meaning some significant delays when more then one or two flights are attempting to get business done.

The only answer here is a schedule that allows controllers some chance of getting a reasonable period of rest between duty tours. Eight or nine hours between shifts will not allow for the proper rest.

Ray - 25 years ATC retired.

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 18, 2011 9:07 PM    Report this comment

Thanks Ray, I'm just a pilot, always learning.
Thanks for the insight.

Posted by: MIKE HAND | April 19, 2011 9:27 PM    Report this comment

I have been an ATCer for 29 years. Except for the last three years, I worked for the FAA. One of the reasons I retired early (age 48) from the FAA was they were literally wearing me out with compressed work schedules and overtime.

The past three years I have worked at Dubai International Airport and I cannot believe the difference. At DXB, we work a much healthier work schedule, with plenty of time to recover between shifts. We rotate the 'long way' (2 days, 2 afternoons, 2nites, and 4 days off--that's 16-24 hrs between shifts). We also use a lot less sick leave than the FAA controllers. The FAA could learn a few things--IF they wanted to.

There are two big problems with the FAA work schedules. First, they are tied to the federal government standard of 40 hrs in a calendar work week.

Secondly, and probably most dangerous, FAA Air Traffic Control is self-regulating. The FAA decides what is safe, but it also has budget obligations which sometimes erode that margin of safety. After the Comair crash in Lexington, we were under orders to have at least 2 people in the towers at all times. You didn't need 2 people, but it was a safety cushion to have that extra set of eyes and ears in the tower. But that extra controller is also an easy cut for a tight budget.

Until these two issues are corrected, you are always going to controller fatigue and a reduced margin of safety.


Posted by: Donald Allen | April 20, 2011 1:01 AM    Report this comment

Very interesting story, Donald.

I wonder how much of the budget issue was brought on by the last administrator trying to pretend the FAA was a corporation. Besides being completely absurd, that kind of pipe dreaming may have caused all sorts of mismanagement in the hope of generating profits that are impossible in a government operation.

I also wonder how much of the nonsense about having to work a 40 hour calendar week has to do with the union representation. Most jobs in the private sector that pay over $100K are salary jobs rather than hourly. That means there is no worry about how many hours are worked at all - let alone how many hours in a calendar week. There is no such thing as overtime pay either. Perhaps the union deal is part of the problem too. This issue of government employees having labor unions is getting a lot of negative press these days. Perhaps there is a good reason for that.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 20, 2011 2:33 AM    Report this comment

Pilots can certainly land without a tower. But, should an incident occur that requires that equipment be rolled, who is going to do that if the tower is closed? A serious incident involving fire makes seconds very important. Depending on a surviving passenger or someone on the ramp to call 911 doesn't seem like a good idea.

Also, some comments have been made about more government jobs. If you don't like the government doing this job how about privatize the FAA? Like the Postal Service.

Posted by: Bruce Leary | April 20, 2011 7:04 AM    Report this comment

But, should an incident occur that requires that equipment be rolled, who is going to do that if the tower is closed?"

If seconds count--and they do--the CFR station is manned 24/7. They can roll themselves if they have the watchstander monitor the inbounds.

This is not rocket science. Reported down times can be handled through RCOs. All that's needed to make this kind of thing work is the will and the ability to determine when the additional sliver of safety margin is worth the added costs.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 20, 2011 8:56 AM    Report this comment

Paul M.... Before we go off on a "Kill the Unions" scenario please realize that the rules of employment and pay are regulated by a massive set of regulations that the unions have a history of forcing management to comply with.

As a PATCO member I never wanted to work through a union but the FAAs serious lack of respect for their employees and failure to follow their own regulations made it a lot easier for me to join and follow the union.

If employers would treat their employees fairly and with respect unions would be obsolete.

As far as I know all federal employees are paid based on their yearly salary divided by 2080 hours.

The "nonsense" is the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and covers all non-management government and a majority of non-management non-government employees.

Yes, unions have their problems and some are serious but lets not forget all the good they have done.


Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 20, 2011 9:06 AM    Report this comment


My post was equally critical of both the FAA management and the union. Indeed, I am neutral in this particular case. I agree the FAA management is so impossible for anyone - labor or aviation community - to deal with so the union might be necessary. Even with the union in place it seems the work schedule for controllers is designed to make their jobs harder rather than easier.

On the other hand, I feel controllers are overpaid. While they can be very nice people and they do perform a service of value to the aviation community it just doesn't make sense to me that people in a job that requires only a high school diploma get paid more than most college educated workers in the country. If I remember correctly this same job is performed by very low ranking military members who, in the cold war days, earned less than poverty wages. I don't begrudge anyone the wages they can negotiate, but when a union gets its members paid 5 or 10 times what competing folks working for other employers get I really wonder where the "Fairness" went.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 20, 2011 10:10 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Mulwitz,
We disagree. While I am against the government just creating jobs for the sake of creating jobs it appears there may exist here a geniune need for that extra set of eyes. Just like it did when standing an LP or an OP in the military.

Additionally it may be possible to solve this dilemma by using some form of automation as well. As for your comment regarding military controllers my father was one during the time period you specifiy and we did not live on anything close to poverty wages. As an NCO he somehow managed to raise two boys and send them both to college.

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | April 20, 2011 10:31 AM    Report this comment

I yield to your experience, Mr. Palma. I too was an NCO in those days, and the pay was meager but enough to put groceries on the table. My comment about poverty wages was really pointed toward the newer members who were not NCOs. I believe there were plenty of lower ranking controllers doing the same job in military control towers that today's sleepy controllers get paid huge salaries to do.

I don't have any problem with either adding a second controller to slow shifts or to closing the towers for those same shifts. I do wonder about anyone sleeping on the job. The same wonder applies to airline pilots who forget to land at their planned destination for reasons we still don't really know.

I can't help believe it is more than a mere coincidence that both the sleeping controllers and pilots too busy to follow their flight plan are both union members. When I was young and learning about these things I thought unions were oriented toward low level labor jobs and "Professionals" didn't belong to them. Today, it seems there are many government employees (school teachers) and people who are supposed to be professionals (controllers and pilots) who make up the majority of union membership.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 20, 2011 10:52 AM    Report this comment

Please remember that the controllers involved in these events may or may not have been members of the union. The Federal Government does not allow a union to force anyone to join.

I am sure the present union is extremely embarrassed by the issues presented by a very small representation of the controller work force. Hey, one was a supervisor!

A number of "professionals" have unions and find them necessary due to a lack of respect or unfairness by their employers.

In the mid 70s I participated in a number of meetings over a two month period to establish new procedures at my busy airport as requested by FAA management, when we went to present our suggestions on the date set by management we were told that they had already decided to go with their plan. Two months and untold man hours down the the drain and a slap in the face.

It was many many events like this that made PATCO strong and I sure it is the same for the present union, NATCA.


Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 20, 2011 11:44 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Laughinghouse makes some excellent points. I am a union member and controller, and while there are a lot of things our union does that I do not agree with, if our employers treated us with a little respect, the union wouldn't be needed. Controller pay comes up every time an issue like this if we would have more of a right to a circadian rhythm if we made less money. I've worked 3rd shift at 5 bucks an hour, and if you aren't getting enough rest, 4 AM bites just as hard no matter how big the paycheck. I was never in the military, but I work with former military controllers who took a pay cut when they left military service for the FAA...and after three years, still aren't matching their military benefits. The paycheck is handsome. The responsibility is tremendous. The schedule is exhausting. One small mistake can land my name in the front pages and several hundred people in early graves...and it is THAT knowlegde, not some misplaced guilt about my paycheck, that keeps me up at night...

Posted by: Jason Wilson | April 20, 2011 2:14 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Wilson,

I understand your points and truly "Feel your pain". I know it is very common for controllers to feel responsible for the safety of the planes they work. The truth is that controllers are not responsible for those planes. The PICs are. Controllers are merely responsible for keeping them separated when they operate in IMC. Even in a case like the Airbus that ran over the smaller jet last week the ground controller might have screwed up, but the pilot in command was responsible for the accident. If a mid-air collision occurs to two planes in IMC then yes, the controller working them is responsible.

On the pay issue, I only point that out to make clear that the union seems to focus on pay rather than on work conditions that it should be watching. I have never worked rotating shifts, but I understand there are ways to make that happen that is consistent with the nature of human beings. Apparently, the way the FAA does it doesn't meet that standard. So, why hasn't the union pointed this out enough to get it all fixed?

I don't know what military members make these days. When I first joined the USAF as a 1 striper the pay was $138 per day, one day per month. By the time a controller made it through tech school he might be making a bit more than that, but nothing even close to the $100,000 plus we keep hearing about for FAA controllers. Yes, at those rates new USAF members got "Free" room and food, but it was worth just about every penny they paid for it.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 20, 2011 2:45 PM    Report this comment

Got so distracted defending the union and my paycheck I forgot my point...I agree with the conclusion of this blog. And the "landing will be at your own risk" phraseology is one of those things you can thank the lawyers's for use when authorizing a helicopter to depart an area we don't control, and a legal disclaimer to be used when a pilot insists on landing on a closed runway...if it was used in the instances of a controlled airport now uncontrolled due to a sleeping controller, I suspect the controller using the phrase was simply exercising some CYA...which we all do because we know if we don't say exactly the right thing and the FAA can find a way to distance itself from our actions and hang us out to dry, they will.

Posted by: Jason Wilson | April 20, 2011 2:46 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Mulwitz,

Our union has raised the issue of scheduling on many occasions, and conducted joint studies with the FAA on our schedule and its effects on people. For a variety of reasons, the issue hasn't been effectively dealt with, and both the FAA and we as controllers are to blame in my opinion. Under the current 40 hr week structure, and in a political climate where publicly admitting that it would be good for controllers to nap while on break, it would be difficult to come up with a schedule that allows for adequate rest but is also flexible and sensitive to the needs of family life. Even this new 9 hour rule is expected to play havoc with controllers who routinely sacrifice health and well being in order to participate in family and social events. If you ask any air traffic manager off the record if he/she thinks controllers are sleeping on mids or watching movies, reading books, and listening to the radio to stay awake, he/she would have to be a fool not to admit that it is an open secret and has been for some time. For decades, this is how controllers made it work...sleep when you can, wake up when you have to, or entertain yourself to stay awake. I don't know if events like DCA and Reno have been happening all along, being covered up perhaps...or if we've just been unlucky over the past few months.

Posted by: Jason Wilson | April 20, 2011 3:15 PM    Report this comment


But it seems clear the old way of pretending the schedule doesn't require superhuman abilities, while looking the other way as controllers did whatever they had to in order to make it work, has failed. At my facility, we have some controllers who have opted to work four 10 hr shifts per week, which elminates the "rattler" shifts while also yielding more days off per year. It's very popular among those fortunate to be able to work it, but the current rules prevent management from forcing everyone to work the 10 hr schedule. It's definitely not a problem with an easy solution, and I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers. But I believe publicly acknowledging that rest at work is good for the workforce, and by extension, the tax paying public, is an excellent start. I do my job effectively and without fear of punishment or termination, and in an occupation where "weekends off" is a dark joke, still have some semblance of a family life.

Posted by: Jason Wilson | April 20, 2011 3:16 PM    Report this comment

And although I am very much aware that you are correct about PIC's being responsible for the aircraft, it is impossible to ignore the feeling of ownership and responsibility for what happens on my watch. So much of what I do every day falls under the category of "additional service." It's not separation or safety, it's just something I do because I am a public servant with an obligation to do whatever I can to assist the user. And when it goes wrong, and people die, there is nothing like the feeling of being hunted, even when you know you've done nothing wrong...or do you? Only years of litigation and re-living the event will tell, and when that's all done it almost doesn't matter if it was your fault or not. I speak from personal experience...and I understand that no one here is attacking air traffic controllers personally, I guess I'm just taking advantage of a forum to speak out and defend an occupation which seems to be rapidly becoming synonymous with government inefficiency and waste. I apologize if I seem overly defensive.

Posted by: Jason Wilson | April 20, 2011 3:36 PM    Report this comment

It's OK Jason,

All of us have ragged nerves over the things going on in the federal government. I know I wouldn't want to work for the feds in this day and age. I would feel more secure in my future if I was selling hot dogs through the fence at a golf course.

One last comment. The FAA is moving up in the ratings. For many years it was rated the worst department in the federal government to work for, but that distinction has been taken over by TSA.

Hang in there . . .

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 20, 2011 6:29 PM    Report this comment

The above comments have some good solutions, including eliminating rotating shifts and closing towers at night. I always thought that rotating shifts on the police force where I lived was a particularly dangerous idea. Ray Laughinghouse pointed up the numerous flights by UPS and Fed-Ex, but I would think if there were that many flights, that would help keep controllers awake. Mr. Roessler beat me to the punch with a suggestion that I hadn't read before. Cheap, easy and effective. Unfortunately, this is all preaching to the choir and probably won't penetrate the hysteria from the media and politicians. They don't have to do anything effective, they just have to do something.

Posted by: John Worsley | April 21, 2011 9:35 PM    Report this comment

Link didn't post:

Posted by: Paul Huffman | April 22, 2011 3:59 PM    Report this comment

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