FAA adds to night shift, hopes controllers stay awake

Last 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.