FAA adds to night shift, hopes controllers stay awake

FAA adds to night shiftLast month, the only flight controller at Washington’s Reagan National Airport (DCA) fell asleep during the overnight shift and two commercial jets landed on their own. The FAA responded by suspending the sleepy controller and ordering two controllers on duty during the overnight shift at Reagan National. Now, after other controllers were found sleeping on duty, the FAA will put an extra one on the midnight shift at 27 control towers that currently have only have one on duty at that time.

“I am totally outraged by these incidents. This is absolutely unacceptable,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to the Associated Press. “The American public trusts us to run a safe system. Safety is our No. 1 priority, and I am committed to working 24/7 until these problems are corrected.”

It sounds like there might not be much sleep for those investigating these incidents any time soon either.

Monday, at Seattle’s Field-King County International (BFI) a controller fell asleep resulting in his suspension as well. That controller was already facing disciplinary action for sleeping on two separate occasions while on the early evening shift in January. Wednesday, at Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO), a medical flight landed on its own when they could not raise the airport’s tower for 16 minutes.

“Air traffic controllers are responsible for making sure aircraft safely reach their destinations,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. “We absolutely can not and will not tolerate sleeping on the job. This type of unprofessional behavior does not meet our high safety standards.”

These incidents, perhaps the result ongoing concerns about those who control our skies, should really be no big surprise though.

Being an air traffic controller has long been a stressful, tiring job. There are three big challenges an air traffic controller faces every day says stuckmic.com. The complexity of traffic, working long shifts with no break, and dealing with air traffic during bad weather.

Falling asleep helps on the “long shifts without a break” problem but does not help the other two very much. Even awake, air traffic controllers have their share of problems

“In the 12 months ending on Sept. 30, 2010, there were 1,889 operation errors – which usually means aircraft coming too close together, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That was up from 947 such errors the year before and 1,008 the year before that” reports ABCNews.

Let’s hope the FAA is addressing those other issues as well.

Child directs airplanes from JFK air traffic control tower – FAA not amused


Bring your child to work day usually involves showing the little ones how your office looks, and letting them play with the water cooler. At New York JFK Airport, someone took things a little too far by letting a child issue commands to aircraft. In the video above, you can clearly hear the kid, with someone in the background telling him what to say.

Thankfully, the pilots all seem to find it rather funny, and I assume it brightened up their otherwise boring day. Sadly, the FAA doesn’t share their sense of humor, as a full investigation is underway to determine who did what, and why. The FAA had this to say:

Pending the outcome of our investigation, the employees involved in this incident are not controlling air traffic. This behavior is not acceptable and does not demonstrate the kind of professionalism expected from all FAA employees.

Even though rules were broken, I doubt airplanes were in any kind of danger during the short burst of entertainment from the tower.

FAA admits near-collision of two jets

Early in the morning on November 23, two jets coming in for landing at Denver International Airport had a near-miss, as one plane tried to make a U-turn into the path of the other, causing the jets to come within 200 feet of one another.

According to ABC News, one jet was in a line of planes coming in for landing. The other was on a parallel path, and needed to be guided in to the line. Air traffic controllers gave the second plane incorrect instructions though, requiring it to turn around to right in the path of the other plane. The plane’s collision avoidance system sounded an alarm, and the pilots were able to avoid the other plane.

ABC News quoted a source as saying that the two planes merged on the radar screen and came with “a blink of an eye” of each other. As is always the case with incidents like these, the FAA is investigating.

White House pushing for answers to airline industry woes

The Obama Administration is taking a closer look at the airline industry with the hopes that something can be fixed. Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood is pulling together a panel that will investigate the problems the industry faces and hopefully come up with a solution. But, I don’t think anyone’s breath is being held.

The airlines are always swamped with criticism, with consumers unhappy about customer service levels, on-time arrivals and departures, the shrinking list of amenities and increasingly cramped conditions. Now, shareholders are speaking louder about declining revenues and profits. Employees are losing their jobs, and regulators and industry observers worry about continued safety violations, including drunk and distracted pilots.

Ultimately, LaHood’s goal is for the panel to put together “a road map for the future of the aviation industry.” The panel is being convened thanks in part to a push from the airline unions, the stakeholders worried most by the layoffs that have now become routine. According to The Associated Press, they believe the industry is “dysfunctional.”

Of course, it didn’t take the airlines to offer their thoughts ask for money — lots of it. They claim that radar technology that dates back to World War II isn’t as effective as a GPS-based alternative. The industry would love to see this upgrade … as long as the government writes the check. The FAA is already prepared to spend $15 billion to $22 billion on this effort, but there is an additional $14 billion to $20 billion currently sent over to the airlines. The upside would be reductions in airport congestion, fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

The Air Transportation Association (shockingly) thinks the taxpayers should pay the bill because the system would benefit the whole country. US Airways CEO Doug Parker wrote a letter to LaHood saying that the airlines simply don’t have the cash to meet their end of this.

Unfortunately, the airline industry has once again asked for money and not offered any solutions of its own. No suggestion was offered as to any of the other difficulties pertaining to the industry, and I tend to become suspicious when there is only one problem identified. It implies that everything could be fixed, in this case, with the replacement of radar air traffic control systems with GPS technology. We’re dealing with an industry that has lost credibility rapidly, so even if this one grand move would address ever gripe, large and small, a willing audience is unlikely to take shape.

[Photo by extremeezine via Flickr]

New FAA plane tracking computer off to a bad start

For years, the Federal Aviation Administration has been working on modernizing the computer systems that keep our skies safe.

Many of these systems have been in operation for over 30 years, and while the old “it it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” saying may apply to a lot of stuff, it isn’t really applicable to air traffic control.

One of the new systems being tested by the FAA is actually live in Salt Lake City. The “En Route Automation” computer system provides better flight management, and allows flight controllers to handle more aircraft, in a wider range than the current systems.

Sadly, the system is not entirely free of glitches, as a controller at Salt Lake City airport encountered last weekend. When monitoring a flight on its way to Texas, the screen suddenly changed the plane to one that had just landed.

The new system was immediately taken offline, and all planes were told to increase their distances between each other while the backup air traffic control computers were brought online.

The glitch has been identified and a fix will be applied. Obviously, a new system is needed to reduce delays in the sky, but if basic things like aircraft identification do not work correctly, there may be quite a bit of work necessary before the new system goes nationwide.