The Situation in the Air Traffic Profession

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Air Traffic Controllers: New FAA Contract Will Lead to Longer Hours, Fatigue

WASHINGTON -- Air traffic controllers said Friday they will be forced to work even when they are tired under a contract the Federal Aviation Administration plans to impose this weekend.


The controllers' new contract with the FAA follows nine months of bitter negotiations that broke down in April. Controllers sought binding arbitration, but the FAA said the law gives it the right to impose its last, best offer.

A section of the contract reads, "Sick leave cannot be granted for rest or minor inconveniences," according to a briefing guide for the FAA's collective bargaining agreement with the National Association of Air Traffic Controllers.

So the controller has the choice of using vacation time, or better yet comp time (because it's otherwise paid at overtime rates) or just coming to work and working traffic when they're too tired to see straight after two straight quick turns? Does this impress any member of the flying public as the right set of incentives?

"We would never have a controller controlling traffic who was too tired to work," said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.


On Friday, the FAA's air traffic manager at Washington Center said he would discipline any controller who called in sick because he was fatigued, Rinaldi said.

The union has said the FAA is hostile to controllers and that its contract will result in a wave of retirements because it creates a disincentive for controllers to stay on the job.


Nearly half the current controllers are expected to retire in the next decade. Most of those workers are replacements for the controllers fired by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 for refusing to abandon a strike that he considered illegal.

Ladies and gentlemen: The strike happened in 1981. That wave of controllers who were hired in and immediately after 1981 are eligible for retirement now. If the FAA can't come up with better reasons for them to stay on the job, half of the ones who are there will leave. Imagine what that will do to already minimal staffing levels. 25 years ago, air traffic (outside of general aviation) was a much smaller number of flights per day.

Going to bring the military controllers over again? That was marginal enough back in 1981. The traffic situation is far more dense now, and the military doesn't have as many radar facilities - the FAA took a lot of them over. The military has a fair number of tower controllers, but handling F-18s is a very different skill from blending Cessnas and jumbo jets, and outside of the training facilities that bring military pilots from their first flight on, military controllers just don't see the mix of traffic that civil ones do.

Controllers: Staff shortages nationwide

Efficiencies will include cutting workers' compensation and overtime costs, reducing training time and matching the number of controllers at a facility to the amount of air traffic.

Dr. Charles Czeisler, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, said the Lexington controller's sleep deprivation meant it was likely he suffered attention lapses and he took three times as long to react to things.

For the average person who's been on duty for 17 of the previous 24 hours and has had two hours of sleep, "the impairment is comparable to being legally drunk," Czeisler said.

Been there. Done that. Seen many, many people in the same situation, many times.

If you have to do the rotating shifts thing, rotate clockwise, so that there are at least 24 hours between shift start and shift start, not reverse clockwise so that there are 24 hours at most.

Nobody can know whether that controller being less tired would have enabled him to notice ComAir 5191 taking off on a runway that was too short in time for it to make a difference. It is not the primarily the controller's responsibility, although in practical usage if they didn't stop a lot of this sort of thing there would be an amazingly large number of bodies on the ground. All I can tell you is that in twelve years, I had something like thirty gear saves alone. People don't usually die from gear up landings, and they're gear saves are no big deal unless the supervisor sees it and wants to reward somebody they like, but this should give you an idea of how often controllers really do save pilots from the sort of error anyone can make with a moment's inattention. I really think people's lives are more important than the controller having a long weekend.

You know, I don't fly often, nor does any of my immediate family. This just doesn't touch me very much any more. Maybe those of you who do might have some kind of motivation to talk to your congresscritter about fixing the FAA? Maybe get your congresscritter to go out and ask a few controllers about what things are like? Due to the good ol' boy (and good ol' girl) network, FAA management is very badly broken. Get some money to maybe afford decent staffing levels? Maybe even reform the personnel rules so that people who shouldn't be working, aren't? Perhaps alternate staffing like nurses do: four ten hour days, or three twelve, but with more time between shifts, so that controllers still get the same sort of weekend everybody else does. Perhaps cut the workweek to 36 hours in four nine hour shifts rotating with the clock, rather than against? Okay it's less than the standard 40, but what's more important: Working your mule the same as every other mule, or not having airplane accidents? Which might be more important to you: a $2 surcharge on the cost of your ticket, or the possibility your plane will have something happen to it because the controller who might have prevented it was so tired they might as well have been drunk?

UPDATE: Changed ambiguous wording in next to last paragraph as noted.


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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on September 1, 2006 7:06 PM.

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