In the USA, the FAA has been in the news lately due to an air traffic controller who was sleeping on the job during a late night shift at the Reagan National Airport in Washington DC.
However, Terry Maxon has written a post for the Dallas Morning News’ Airline Biz Blog noting more recent sleeping air traffic controller incidents in Lubbock, Texas; Reno, Nevada; and Seattle, Washington:
- In the Lubbock incident that occurred during a midnight shift, controllers failed to hand off control of a departing aircraft to another control tower and were suspended as they were suspected of falling asleep.
- In the Reno incident, a controller fell asleep while a medical flight carrying an ill patient was trying to land. The controller was out of communication for 16 minutes and was suspended – pending an FAA investigation.
- In the Seattle incident, a controller at the Boeing Field/King County International Airport allegedly fell asleep during his morning shift was suspended. However, he is also facing disciplinary action for falling asleep on two other occasions during an early evening shift.
Hence, the FAA has announced that it will add an additional controller on the midnight shift at 27 US control towers.
In addition and in a follow-up post, Terry provided the following table of airports in the USA where there is currently only one air traffic controller late at night:
(It was noted that Omaha will get an additional controller for both the tower and the Terminal Radar Approach Control facility).
Critics contend that adding more air traffic controllers because existing ones are not doing their job is a waste of taxpayer money as controllers easily earn more than US$100,000 a year. Others have noted that if you put a controller in a dark tower to handle a couple of aircraft a night and nothing else to do, you are asking for trouble – especially if you change a controller’s shift from day to night before their bodies are adjusted to the change.
The problem will not be solved by simply placing another controller in towers with little after hours activity. There are better solutions to the problem, to wit:
Ever since aviation started pilots have known how to land an aircraft without controllers, so why not just close the towers instead? We are spending more money to solve a problem when we could save some money.
Don't allow controllers to return to duty until they have received at least 24 hours off duty. This idea that increasing the time between shifts from 8 hours to 9 hours is meaningless. What controller can go off duty, drive home (which may be an hour or more away), get some sleep (what about eating?), drive back to the tower and be expected to not be tired?
Typical big government solution which will – as always – have unintended consequences.