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.

Five business travel factors for Obama and the midterm elections

Leisure travel is irrelevant during the election season, but the woes of business travelers seem to resonate. With the midterm contests two months away, all eyes are on the White House … and President Obama‘s success rate with road, rail and runway repair.

This is the one time business travelers make the presidential agenda, according to Portfolio.com: “Presidents (or people campaigning for any office) only talk about business-travel infrastructure during election season. Our issues almost never seem to rate presidential attention at any other time in the cycle.”

Well, let’s take a look at what Obama’s done for the white collar travel crowd. Here are five business traveler issues that could attract some attention in November:1. Secretary of Transportation appointed: With passengers’ rights considered and a solution implemented (and one that seems to be working), Ray LaHood seems to have been a savvy secretary. And, airlines have been slapped with some hefty fines, proving that they need to take responsibility for their actions.

2. Not so much at the TSA, though:
While Portfolio.com gives Obama high marks on behalf of business travelers for LaHood, it’s a little tougher on his choice for top dog of the TSA. The president waited a year to tap someone for the job, suffered through Senate procedural tricks and eventually had to go with his third nominee.

3. Security is solid:
The system is relatively safe, Portfolio.com opines, but expect some rancor over the body scans that are set to be implemented, as “the TSA is about to ratchet up the security kabuki at airport checkpoints.”

4. Travel consumer rights on the rise: It took 47 passengers getting stuck overnight on a Minnesota runway, but passengers finally got some rights. The airline industry warned of (self-servingly) of unintended consequences … which have yet to materialize. The Obama administration has airline fee structures on the agenda now.

5. Merger-mania managed: Despite the fact that the “balancing act is tricky,” the administration has done a decent job of facilitating healthy competition without impeding too much of the urge to merge.

[photo by jurvetson via Flickr]

Is this the end of three-hour waits on the tarmac?

Over the last few years, we’ve heard countless stories of airlines who have allowed their passengers to spend hours stranded in a plane on the runway. Finally, those nightmare scenarios look like they’re about to come to an end.

Yesterday, the Obama administration announced that, beginning this spring, airlines whose passengers sit for more than three hours at a time on the tarmac will face stiff penalties of up to $275,000 per passenger. The new rules, which Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood calls “President Obama’s Passenger Bill of Rights,” also force airlines to offer passengers food and water after they’ve been on the tarmac for two hours.

Many “passengers’ rights” groups are pleased with the administration’s decision. FlyersRights founder Kate Hanni called the move a “Christmas miracle.” “No more will they be able to strand passengers for over three hours in hot, sweaty, metal tubes,” she said.

But not everyone is thrilled with the Obama administration’s “Christmas gift” to travelers. David Castelveter of the Air Transport Association said that this move will result in more cancellations than there are today. If a plane has been waiting on the runway for almost three hours and is told it will take off in five minutes, a passenger who asks to be let off may cause the entire flight to be canceled.

Secretary LaHood discounted the importance of that hypothetical. “You know as well as I do that five minutes always extends out to 50 minutes, and almost always to five hours. There’s no such thing as five minutes, never, ever.”

Castelveter also noted that planes that let off passengers will have to abandon their spot in the take-off queue, taxi back to the gate, have baggage handlers remove the luggage, and during the winter months, de-ice the plane. The delays resulting from letting off the passengers could be much longer than the delays without it.

More here.

What do you think? Are the benefits of ending three-hour waits worth the costs?

Another “blue ribbon” panel to fix the airline industry

It’s been a tough month year decade for the airline industry. In the United States, it’s lost $58.5 billion and cut 158,000 jobs. There never seems to be an answer, and news of an industry in jeopardy has become routine. So, .

But, it will be different this time. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says it will not be “just another advisory committee.”

On his Department of Transportation blog, LaHood writes, “I am not commissioning some report to fill space on my bookshelf. This committee will make a difference.”

He continues:

“Look, without a financially strong aviation industry, we will be unable to compete in domestic and international commerce. We could also fall behind in addressing our own infrastructure needs. So we must begin this important conversation in order to ensure a viable, competitive U.S. aviation industry.”

But, he has his work cut out for him, as does the advisory committee. The estimated price tag to fix the most vexing problems the industry faces is $20 billion. And, many of the recommendations from the last two panels were never implemented.

A new air traffic control system, based on GPS technology, is at the top of the list, but it’s years away. It could save us $40 billion a year in lower fuel and labor costs, not to mention trimming a lot a time from the 740 million people who take to the skies. But, the $20 billion price tag is frightening, especially for airlines that are perpetually behind the financial 8-ball. The other possible wallet belongs to the taxpayer. Anyone want to pay more?

Oh, taxes could go up again if new environmental legislation is passed, so buckle up for more.

On the subject of taxes, the airline industry gripes that it gets hit worse than liquor and tobacco companies (well, except maybe rollers of loose cigarette tobacco). This gives them even fewer financial options to improve equipment and service. For airline shareholders, Jim May, top dog of the Air Transport Association, puts the lost value at around $24.5 billion. Yeah, I spelled it because there’d be a lot of zeroes otherwise. Local and state taxes have gone up, applying even more pressure. But, the other side of this is that taxes are a fact of life for any company, and the airlines should suck it up and move on. Let’s face it: with the U.S. economy in its current state, nobody’s getting tax cuts anytime soon.

Foreign money, the airlines say, would make it easier. Right now, foreign investors’ abilities to invest in U.S. airlines are limited because of national defense considerations. But, this is probably a dated risk, according to Carlos Bonilla, who advised former President Bush (the recent one) on transportation matters. The airlines would still be subject to U.S. regulation, regardless of who owns them.

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]