The FAA has moved to solve the problem of sleeping air traffic controllers today by announcing 27 airports will now have two controllers in the tower during the overnight shift. Their primary job appears to be keeping the other controller awake.
There’s not going to be much else for the additional controller to do; controlling aircraft isn’t much of an option.
Officials say an air traffic controller fell asleep at Reno-Tahoe International Airport while a medical flight carrying an ill patient was trying to land at about 2 a.m. The agency said the controller, who was out of communication for about 16 minutes, has been suspended.
The FAA also said it had suspended a sleeping controller in Lubbock, Texas. “During the midnight shift, the Lubbock controllers failed to hand off control of a departing aircraft to the Fort Worth Air Route Traffic Control Center,” the FAA said. “Handing off” control of a departing aircraft involves telling the pilot to change frequency on his/her radio.
Between midnight and 6 a.m. this morning in Lubbock, there were two departing flights; both of them within a few minutes of 6 a.m.
An air traffic controller’s primary job is to maintain separation between aircraft. Most of the incidents of late have occurred on the overnight shift when there really isn’t any other aircraft in the area, and certainly not much to do, which is probably why they doze off in the first place.
For example, between midnight and 6 a.m., there were only four arrivals at the airport in Reno.
Last month, a controller in the tower at Reagan Airport in Washington fell asleep. Even in busy airspace such as Washington, there were only 5 arrivals this morning between midnight and 6 a.m., four of them within a few minutes of midnight or 6 a.m.
By contrast, two aircraft arrived at St. Paul’s downtown airport over the same time period. St. Paul’s control tower is unstaffed overnight.