Controller: Doubling control tower staffing no cure for the sleepy

The U.S. House this afternoon approved the budget bill that cuts billions from federal programs. This is probably not a good time to ask for more air traffic controllers, even though the FAA says it’s going to double up the number of controllers who work the midnight shift at 27 airports, including Fargo and Duluth. The FAA is trying to cut down on instances of controllers falling asleep when working alone.

“The only answer for it is bodies, and we are really expensive,” retired controller Don Brown told me this afternoon.

Brown, who writes the blog , Get the Flick, says the only way the FAA can add a second controller overnight is through overtime. But that makes the problem even worse because it adds a controller who’s already tired at the beginning of the shift. “You’re just doubling the problem,” he says.

He wrote on his blog that staffing a control tower with just one controller is “stupid.” Two isn’t much better.

With only two people, sooner or later you’re back to working with only one. Somebody does have to go to the bathroom at some point. (You don’t want to know what the guy working by himself does.) And human nature being what it is, this is the “logic” that takes over; “If I can work alone for 30 minutes, why not an hour? Or two hours? Hey! I’ve got an idea. You take the first half of the shift and I’ll take the second half and we’ll both get a much-needed nap.” It happens every time. And sooner or later, most managers go along with it.

A few weeks ago, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its report on an Owatonna crash that killed eight people, singling out pilot fatigue as one cause, and pointing out that a tired person has the same reaction time as one who is legally drunk.

“Halfway through the shift, you’re half drunk,” says Brown.

He says the only real solution is three controllers, something he acknowledges a budget-conscious government isn’t going to do.

“All of them have got to take some kind of a nap to be functional. It’s just not going to happen,” he says.

It was this crash at Lexington, Kentucky that first highlighted the problem of tired controllers. A ComAir flight took off on the wrong runway, and the controller, working alone, didn’t notice. The runway was too short. The plane crashed. Forty-nine people died.

“This is not a job to get distracted in. This is not a job to get sleepy in and dysfunctional,” Brown says.

Staying awake isn’t as easy as it may sound to people who work in the daytime, he adds.

“Guys used to bring in DVD players or bring their laptops in. The FAA said, ‘Hey , that’s a distraction; those have got to come out of there.’ You’ve got a guy who’s sitting in front of a blank radar scope. There’s nobody talking to him and there’s nothing going on. And you expecting him to stay awake and alert for eight hours?”

Brown says aviation officials are waiting until the news media has another story to write about. “They’re just going to wait until it goes away. This is nothing new; this has been going on for decades. Look at the Lexington crash,” he said.

  • Suzanne

    Bob – What do you think is the answer here? Is there any way to do this electronically or automatically? I agree with Don Brown, who thinks it is actually a bad idea not to have distractions. I think a five-to-ten minute distraction like having a computer or texting is preferable to a 20-30 minute nap taken by a solo air-traffic controller.

  • Bob Collins

    There’s no technical solution here. I would allow controllers to have reading material or DVDs to pass the time. But I’d probably close the towers overnight if they can’t be effectively staffed. People want smaller budgets and this is what it looks like. Nobody likes government but nobody wants to slam into terrain on final approach either.