FAA to add air traffic controllers with nothing to do

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.

  • BJ

    Wouldn’t a ‘Lost’ style alarm do the same thing? Every 20 minutes they need to type in a code or the world ends, I mean some kind of alarm goes off to wake them up.

  • Jim Shapiro

    But I thought St. Ronnie got rid of all of those lazy union commies!

  • That LOST comment made my day.

    Makes sense to me, but I’m the kind of person who thinks that if you’re sitting in the front seat of the car on a road trip, your job is to navigate as needed and keep the driver awake.

  • Bob Collins

    Two controllers with nothing to control. It would make a swell sitcom.

  • Tyler

    Seems like it’s time to take humans out of the loop. I mean, doesn’t an autopilot fly the plane for most of the flight? And don’t we have systems to automatically land the plane? Granted, we always need human oversight, but lets start leveraging the computer technology we have to save lives and/or increase safety.

  • Bob Collins

    Planes land all the time without needing a controller and the midnight shift isn’t much different than a lot of uncontrolled airports.

    As I indicated, the primary job of an air traffic controller is to maintain separation of aircraft. To my knowledge, there is no current affordable technology — if the technology exists at all — that would maintain separation without human intervention.

    Keep in mind that — despite what the airlines want you to believe — the nation’s skies are for everyone, not just commercial air traffic. So it has to accommodate the guy in the Piper Cub too.

  • This step is long overdue as every airport needs at least two controllers on duty just in case Sen. Inhofe decides to land on a closed runway.

  • Bonnie

    Looking forward to the Stewart or Colbert jokes on this one.

  • Michael

    Which begs the question, if the towers have so little activity overnight that the controllers can’t stay awake, why are they open at all? And now there are TWO? Yet another “waste” of taxpayer money?

  • Bob Collins

    That’s a good question. Some of these airports are pushing out commercial flights after 6 a.m. Most towers that are unstaffed at night don’t open until 7 a.m.

  • The Big Dog

    27 new jobs. 13.5 million to go. Dem and Repubs working together finally.

  • babs

    How about just cutting shift to 4 hours!!!! I’ll bet this would wake them up. I work on a computer all day and work minimum of 9 hours a day and I don’t go to sleep. Get your lazy butts up and WORK like the rest of us.

  • Bob Collins

    That’s because you have something to do all day. When you’re on the overnight shift at an airport without any planes landing for 4 or 5 hours, your options to help stay awake are pretty well limited.