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.

Only approved electronic devices allowed in the cockpit?

Maybe the flight attendants should start talking to the cockpit, too. When a plane overshot Minneapolis last month because the crew was playing around with personal laptops, national attention turned to what actually goes on in the front of the plane. Congress is kicking around the idea of a new bill that would kick personal electronic devices from the cockpit.

Unsurprisingly, the pilots and airlines aren’t crazy about the idea. They say that the measure would impede progress by making innovation less accessible. Scott Schleiffer, a cargo pilot who’s also thrown some brain time at safety issues for the Air Line Pilots Association, told USA Today, “We would like to have access to tools, and as tools evolve, we would like to have better tools.”

FAA chief Randy Babbit agrees, saying, “We need to be very careful,” in regards to the prohibition of personal devices in the cockpit.

Airlines are starting to bring new technology into the cockpit, with laptops and other devices used to improved weather and safety information. The devices aren’t all that different from what distracted the Northwest pilots who missed Minneapolis. JetBlue has issued laptops to pilots, which are used to push through calculations during takeoff and landing. But, the airline doesn’t allow personal use of them.

So far, two bills have been introduced in the Senate. They would exempt devices used to operate the plane or help with safety issues, but pilots don’t believe that this is enough.

Neither side of the argument addresses the core problem: keeping pilots focused on the job. In theory, extraordinary measures shouldn’t be necessary. Professionals, by definition, should not need that kind of intense oversight. It’s already against the against the law for pilots not to pay attention to their responsibilities, and that’s probably enough regulation. Instead, the solution needs to come to the airlines — organizational measures are needed to ensure that professionals remain professional. Executed properly, the good ones shouldn’t even notice a different.

Plane Answers: Who sets crew rest rules and are MD-80s safe?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

John asks:

Are commercial airline pilots allowed to be flying for up to a maximum number of hours by FAA, or is this at the discretion of the airline they are flying for?

The FAA allows a two-pilot aircraft to be scheduled to fly for up to 8 hours. This is flight time only and doesn’t include any time waiting between flights or getting ready. The duty-day, or the time a pilot can be on duty is sixteen hours, but some airlines have rules, often negotiated by their unions for thirteen or fourteen hour days.

When an extra ‘relief’ pilot is added for a total of three pilots, the flight time can increase to a scheduled 12 hours with a total duty time of 18 hours.

Finally, if four pilots are aboard, the scheduled flight time can be up to 16 hours and the duty time up to 20 hours.

There are other rules designed to keep fatigue out of the cockpit; no more than six days on duty without a full day off, no more than 30 hours of flight time in a week (32 hours for international flights) and no more than 100 hours of flying a month (120 hours for international pilots).

One exception: The FAA has established different flight and duty time regulations for the state of Alaska.

Many of these regulations are likely to change in the next year. The FAA has announced plans to review these regulations and to update them as a result of new alertness studies and last year’s incident in Hawaii where both pilots fell asleep after flying a rather brutal schedule.

Joe asks:

Hi Kent,

I love your site and visit often. I have a question about the MD-80 series airplane. When I was a child, my Mom missed Northwest flight 255.

Her Physician was not so lucky. Ever since that incident, I have been terrified to fly on the MD-80 and have not flown on one! I realize they are very popular and have a fairly good safety record, but I prefer the Airbus 320/321, 737, 757 and the ultimate – 767 for my travels. How do you feel about the MD-80s? Are they a more difficult airplane to fly? I ask because I will be flying on an AA MD-80 in September and I’m very nervous about it. Keep up the Plane Answers! I love them!

PS – Took your advice after watching the DA20 video – After 31 years on this earth and 11 years of police work, I finally have saved the $ to chase that pilot’s license!
Wow, congratulations Joe. One of my primary flight instructors was a police officer, in fact. I’m sure you’re going to love flight training.

I flew the MD-80 for only a year, but I remember it to be a safe airplane that does well in a crosswind, has a reasonable approach speed and isn’t lacking in performance. The technology in other airplanes has improved and the MD-80 has been retrofitted with some of those same features such as GPS and an EFIS (electronic flight instrument system) display.

There isn’t a quieter airplane for those sitting in the front of an MD-80. In the descent, at less than 250 knots, it’s as if you’re flying a glider. It’s not very difficult to fly and it doesn’t rely on any fly-by-wire system for the flight controls.

The NW255 accident was caused by a failure of the pilots to conduct a before takeoff checklist that, among other things, assured the flaps and slats were extended. Contributing to the accident was a failed takeoff warning horn that had a tripped circuit breaker preventing it from working.

Today, we have a checklist (at American it’s a mechanical checklist that’s hard to miss, the importance of which is drilled into every aviator’s head from the beginning of their career. I realize how close to home, so to speak, this occurred for you, but I think you can feel safe on an MD-80. I’m even considering upgrading to it when I have the seniority for captain.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.