WASHINGTON — Publicly fuming, the FAA chief collected Thursday the resignation of the head of the U.S. air traffic system, doubled controller staffing at more than two dozen airports and ordered a sweeping review of the entire system that ensures planes fly safely, as the government sought to reassure the public that air travel is safe despite at least four instances of controllers sleeping on the job.
But present and former controllers told The Associated Press that grueling work schedules and the design of the job itself — sitting in a dark room at night waiting for pilots to call — have made taking naps on the job necessary, even if unauthorized by the FAA. One whistle-blower complained to the Transportation Department that cots can be found in one radar center, most often with controllers asleep in them.
The National Transportation Safety Board warned FAA after a deadly 2006 air crash that controllers’ schedules were creating unsafe situations in which they were going into work after only a few hours of sleep. But little had changed until this week when Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt said he was immediately adding a second controller on overnight shifts at 26 airports and a radar facility that had been staffed with a lone controller. Presumably the second controller provides a margin of safety if the first falls asleep.
Babbitt’s order came hours after the pilot of a plane transporting a critically ill passenger was unable to raise the single controller working at 2 a.m. Wednesday in the tower of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada. The FAA said the controller, who was out of communication for 16 minutes, was sleeping. Controllers at a regional radar facility in California assisted the plane, which landed safely.
Hank Krakowski, the head of the agency’s Air Traffic Organization, resigned Thursday and a replacement search was under way, Babbitt said.
“Over the last few weeks we have seen examples of unprofessional conduct on the part of a few individuals that have rightly caused the traveling public to question our ability to ensure their safety,” Babbitt said in a statement Thursday. “This conduct must stop immediately.”
Babbitt and National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi met privately Thursday with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to assure them that FAA is on top of the problem.
“We take our responsibilities very seriously and believe staffing levels and fatigue are at the root of the problem,” Rinaldi said in a statement. “We will continue to work with the FAA and through our professional standards workgroup to provide the highest level of professionalism and safety.”
Four cases of controllers sleeping when they were supposed to be directing air traffic have been disclosed since March 23. The first occurred when two airliners landed at Washington’s Reagan National Airport without assistance from the tower after pilots’ repeated attempts to reach the lone air traffic supervisor on duty failed. The supervisor later acknowledged to investigators that he had fallen asleep.
Dozing off at one’s post is unusual, but not unheard of, said seven current and retired controllers interviewed by the AP. Six of them acknowledged briefly falling asleep while working alone at night at least once in their careers. The controllers asked not to be identified because they didn’t want to jeopardize their jobs or the jobs of colleagues.
Much more common is taking a nap on purpose, they said. When more than one controller is assigned to the “midnight” shift, which usually runs from about 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., one controller will work two positions while the other one sleeps and then they switch off, controllers said.
The arrangements sometimes allow controllers to sleep as much as three or four hours out of an eight-hour shift, they said.
FAA regulations forbid sleeping at work, even during breaks. Controllers who are caught can be suspended or fired. But at most air traffic facilities the sleeping swaps are tolerated as long as they don’t affect safety, controllers said.
“We’ve been in denial about this problem forever so you have widespread abuse of a system,” said Bill Voss, a former controller and president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va. “We could have a far better system if we just admitted what is going on and put some structure around it.”
A whistle-blower complaint recently filed with DOT’s inspector general’s office said such arrangements are the norm at night at an FAA radar center near Islip, N.Y., that handles high-altitude air traffic, one of the busiest facilities of its kind in the nation.
“Sleeping on the midnight shifts is so commonplace the controllers keep inflatable beds and blankets at the facility,” the complaint said. “If you take a stroll at 2 a.m., you will see beds set up underneath the desks. More than likely there will be a controller in that bed, asleep.”
The controller who fell asleep at Reagan National was on his fourth day of midnight shifts. Controllers are often scheduled for a week of midnight shifts followed by a week of morning shifts and then a week swing shifts, a pattern that sleep scientists say interrupts the body’s natural sleep cycles.
Another common schedule compresses five eight-hour work shifts as close together as possible while still allowing controllers eight hours off in between. The advantage is that controllers then get three days off. But the shift is known as the “rattler” because controllers say it doubles back and bites those who work it.
That’s the schedule a lone controller in the tower of the Lexington, Ky., airport was wrapping up at 6:35 a.m. on Aug. 27, 2006. He cleared a Comair regional jet for takeoff and then turned his attention to mundane tasks, failing to notice the flight’s pilot made a wrong turn onto a runway that was too short. The plane crashed, killing 49 of the 50 people aboard.
NTSB cited pilot error as the cause of the accident, but noted the controller had slept only two of the previous 24 hours. The board recommended FAA and the controllers union work together to develop new scheduling policies to reduce the likelihood of fatigue.
“The concern is these particularly brutal schedules are still standard practice in most facilities,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in an interview. “What we really need to see is schedules based on scientific principles that take into consideration human limitations when it comes to fatigue.”
In fact, FAA and the controllers union — with assistance from NASA and the Mitre Corp., among others — formed a working group a year and a half ago to study fatigue among controllers and develop recommendations. Among those recommendations, which were presented privately to Babbitt in January, is that FAA change its policies to give controllers on midnight shifts as much as two hours to sleep plus a half-hour to wake up.
But a key member of Congress said building in time to sleep on the job is unacceptable.
“I think that is totally bogus,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told the AP. “There are so many professions that have to work long hours. I was greeted this morning by a young surgeon that had been working all night in an ER.”
Sleep experts said “controlled napping” during the time of day when the body most craves sleep can be healthier for controllers and safer for the public because it helps controllers stay alert during the times they are directing aircraft.
“Just giving people eight hours off, if it’s the wrong time of day, just isn’t going to do it,” said Gregory Belenky, a sleep expert at Washington State University in Spokane. “That might give them the opportunity to sleep, but they are physiologically unable to sleep.”
Another recommendation is to allow controllers to sleep during the 20- to 30-minute breaks they typically receive while working daytime shifts.
FAA is reviewing the recommendations, agency spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
“It’s not outrageous to have people in a safety job rest on duty,” Voss said, citing ER doctors and firefighters who have similar practices.
“What is crazy,” Voss said, “is putting two people onto a shift in a dark room with no noise and telling them to stare out a window and do nothing for eight hours, but to never fall asleep.”