LaHood: ‘We will not sleep’ until controllers stop sleeping

The head of the nation’s air traffic control group at the Federal Aviation Administration, fell on his sword today. Hank Krakowski “resigned” in the wake of several incidents in which controllers working the overnight shift fell asleep.

“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,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt in a statement. “This conduct must stop immediately.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, however, gets the award for inappropriate tough talk when he said “we will not sleep” until there’s good safety in the control towers.

Yesterday, the FAA said it would add a second controller to the overnight shift at 27 airports. Still unexplained by the federal aviation authorities is exactly what a second controller is supposed to do in the towers where sheer boredom may well play a part in nodding off.

Clearly, it’s not a good idea for an air traffic controller to fall asleep, but how big a threat to the flying public exists at the airports named?

Ypsilanti, Michigan is one of the 27 airports to get a second controller. The reporter in the video below said “It is so scary to think about (a controller) not being alert and awake in the tower” on the overnight shift. Number of planes landing in Ypsilanti this morning from midnight to 9 a.m.: two. Both were single-engine Cessna Caravans.

Duluth is also on the list of airports. On the overnight shift this morning, no airplanes (at least on a flight plan) landed. Only one took off (at 12:47 a.m.). It was a corporate jet operated by the Living Word International church.

Fargo, also on the list, didn’t have any flights arriving between 10 p.m. last night and 6 this morning. A SkyWest (US Air) flight left for the Twin Cities around 5:30 a.m.

Here’s the full list of airports:

Akron-Canton, OH (CAK)

Allegheny, PA (AGC)

Andrews AFB, MD (ADW)

Burbank, CA (BUR)

Duluth, MN (DLH)

DuPage, IL (DPA)

Fargo, ND (FAR)

Ft Lauderdale, FL (FLL)

Ft Lauderdale Executive, FL (FXE)

Ft Worth Meacham, TX (FTW)

Grant County, WA (MWH)

Kansas City Downtown, MO (MKC)

Manchester, NH (MHT)

Omaha, NE (OMA)

Ontario, CA (ONT)

Reagan National,VA (DCA)

Reno, NV (RNO)

Richmond, VA (RIC)

Sacramento, CA (SMF)

San Diego, CA (SAN)

San Juan, PR (SJU)

Terre Haute, IN (HUF)

Teterboro, NJ (TEB)

Tucson, AZ (TUS)

Willow Run, MI (YIP)

Windsor Locks, CT (BDL)

Youngstown, OH (YNG)

On Stuck Mic — a forum for air traffic controllers — one unidentified controller describes the problem:

‘Ive been in a VFR (visual flight rules) tower during IFR (instrument flight rules) conditions during the day with NO operations going on, And there literally is nothing to do. Rather than talk to other people around you, there’s not much to really keep yourself busy with since you’re not really permitted to have cellphones/reading material in the tower cab. I can imagine a 40-hour week, midnight shift, no aircraft around for hours, and no one else in the tower it being hard to stay sharp on the job.”

A controller in Wisconsin offers this idea:

“They should have something set up where when the pilot keys the mike, a bunch of different color lights start flashing in the tower cab and a loud bell starts ringing really fast, like when you play those games at the fair and win the grand prize.”

And another controller says the two-person-in-the-tower idea makes sense. That way, he theorizes, they can take turns sleeping.

Tomorrow: An interview with an air traffic controller.

  • BJ

    Hey they stole my idea, I just said like ‘Lost’ but “something set up where when the pilot keys the mike, a bunch of different color lights start flashing in the tower cab and a loud bell starts ringing really fast” is the same idea.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Freud was wrong about a lot, but the “slip” thing still provides some good laughs from time to time.

  • Paul J

    With traffic volumes near zero in the examples you cited, why aren’t they switching to non-towered operation during those hours? (KRST used to close at night for a few hours. It now looks like they will staff the tower at night on request?) That seems more sensible than to double the staff. Is there some guideline that demands 24-hour staffing at some nominal average nighttime traffic volume?

  • John O.

    //It was a corporate jet operated by the Living Word International church.


  • Shawn

    I am an air traffic controller within the FAA who works midnight shifts every week at least once or twice. Between the hours of 1am and 6am usually there are zero airplanes, you sit in a pitch dark room by yourself for 5 hours with no one around, dead silence, no TV, radios, magazines, books, Internet etc. All there is to do is watch a sweep go round and round for hours til the wee hours of the morning usually with minimal sleep from the previous shift. I’d like to see anyone not nod off.