It’s nothing new to see a story on the evening news exposing a governmental flub or embarrassment. The story turns into a saga, however, when the general public is put at risk by such an action. On March 23rd, this “perfect storm” of events occurred when two airplanes landed at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. in the midnight hours while the on-duty air traffic controller was asleep. This mistake could have hurt hundreds of people had the planes not landed safely. But could regulations be partly to blame for the controller’s lapse into a necessary, although brief, slumber?
As the story became a national concern, the Federal Aviation Administration changed the scheduling procedures for air traffic controllers. Controllers have at least nine hour breaks between shifts now, which is at least one more hour than the previous protocol. Before the change was announced, many speculated on the idea that the FAA would allow the air traffic controllers to take naps during their shifts. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt recognized the slippery slope that this idea presented, and instead remarked that “taking advantage of the time [controllers] have to rest is also a professional responsibility.”
I would have to agree with Mr. Babbitt. Agencies can try to protect their employees with these mandated break periods, but the employee is ultimately responsible for showing up to work in top cognitive state. This responsibility is not limited to air traffic controllers. Commuters trust their lives to pilots, truck drivers, train engineers, subway operators, and other transportation professionals everyday, but operating a vehicle during the nighttime hours does not excuse error or lapses in judgment. Pilots are held to certain standards for rest, as are truck drivers. Yes, humans are not nocturnal and may have trouble staying awake after the sun goes down. However, with adequate breaks, the employee can overcome the urge to fall asleep.
Miscommunication between air traffic controllers and pilots is not a new occurrence, but it can be a deadly one. On February 12, 2009, a connecting flight between Newark, New Jersey and Buffalo, New York crashed into a home, killing all 48 people aboard. According to the news story published by Fox News, one of the pilots on board had been talking to the air traffic controllers prior to the crash, and “neither…showed any concerns…as the airplane asked to fly at 2,300 feet.” The low altitude presents dangers of its own, but combined with the ice that accumulated on the aircraft’s wings, it became more dangerous than anyone had predicted. This accident was not directly related to the air traffic controller’s amount of sleep, but seeing as it was a late-night flight, both the pilot and the controller might not have been as attentive as they should have been.
Could the accident over Buffalo been prevented if air traffic controllers had direct supervision? Two sets of eyes are almost always better than one, and in this case, it might have saved lives. So many services and procedures are overseen by remote locations these days, and I think the standard may have applications in aviation. For example, smaller airports or towers experiencing minimal flight volume may be monitored by air traffic control in a larger hub-type remote location. Instead of one ATC overseeing 5-10 flight within an hour, maybe there are 4 controllers monitoring 30-40 flights. If one needs to take a break, the ratio doesn’t jump very much for the other three air traffic controllers. As long as each shares an equal amount of work, this could be a new solution to this recent problem.
The Federal Aviation Administration is obviously making an effort to help protect the safety of their employees and the traveling public. The newly implemented standards for air traffic controller breaks can only do so much, however. Jobs with overnight shifts are difficult to get used to, but sleeping during the day or at any time possible may be a necessary part of a person’s routine if they are responsible for safely transporting people from one place to another.