Recently in Air Traffic Category

FAA inspectors say concerns ignored

The meat of the article

Both FAA whistleblowers -- Charalambe Boutris and Peters -- said the agency views the airlines as its 'customers' instead of companies to be regulated. They said the FAA's chief maintenance inspector at Southwest, Douglas T. Gawadzinski, knowingly allowed Southwest to keep planes flying that put passengers at risk, and that another inspector knew of the problem and did nothing.

And people are surprised by this?

Here's the nuts and bolts. The aviation lobbies are very powerful, and the general public never gets concerned until there are bodies on the ground. When the FAA starts to do something that airlines or ALPA or AOPA doesn't like, it's pretty trivial to get someone in Congress applying heat, jeopardizing bureaucratic careers. This in turn rolls downhill all the way to the bottom - whether that bottom is inspectors or controllers. This is very typical:

Federal Aviation Administration inspector Douglas Peters choked up Thursday at a House hearing and needed a few sips of water to tell lawmakers about how a former manager came into his office, commented on pictures of Peters' family being most important, and then said his job could be jeopardized by his actions.

If Congress wants to see who is really, bottom line responsible, they need only look in a mirror. Nor are any of the last five presidential administrations immune from blame. Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr, Clinton, and Bush Jr. all share the blame for this. It's just as easy to lobby political appointees in the executive branch, or high ranking careerists who would like the opportunity for what the Japanese call Amakudari (The word means literally "descent from heaven"). Carter deregulated the airlines without putting into place mechanisms to ensure that the FAA would keep pace and remain in its proper role. To date, none of his successors in either the executive or legislative branch has remedied that error. The FAA has imposed labor contracts upon the controllers union in large part because the controllers union wanted to negotiate keeping traffic levels at a level that can be humanly handled without probabilities of error increasing, where if a system component fails -and they fail more often than the FAA admits - the resulting workload can still be handled.

I'm not really interested in blame. Since I don't fly much anymore, what I'm really interested in is effectively using the tax money they get so we don't get what controllers call "Aluminum showers" from falling airplane wreckage. But whatever public good there may be at stake, it's long past time to look at the FAA and what it regulates, and align the incentives for the FAA more closely along what we can all agree is the public good. I wouldn't be surprised if you needed to fire every single FAA employee above the bottom level to make this happen.

Flight Delays

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Push grows for flier 'bill of rights'

"You gotta realize the frustration -- you can look out the window and you can see, there's the gate, and if you let us off the plane, we can walk there," said Farrell, one of hundreds of passengers stranded on planes held up by the bad weather.

When they're already where they're going, that's one thing.

When they're haven't departed yet, that's quite another.

Here's the situation: Since 1970, there have been two - count them, two - new commercial airports in the country. Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver. Nor have there been any new runways at older airports. Meanwhile, the increase in air traffic is something like ten-fold.

How many aircraft can use a runway at the same time? One.

How many aircraft can use a gate at the same time? One.

Separation and Safety standards have evolved over many years in response to many issues. Decreasing them endangers everyone, and has a very small effect upon air traffic. The rule is that there has to be one form of separation in effect at all times. Five miles or 1000 vertical feet in centers. Approach controls have more options: diverging courses, visual separation, etcetera. But towers have to have and maintain 6000 runway feet minimum for jets or aircraft over 12,500 pounds of any description, and there are wake turbulence rules in addition to that which are measured in minutes. This amounts to one aircraft on the runway at a time, and the larger the plane, the longer it takes to clear the runway, either on arrival or departure, and the more time after it that the next aircraft needs before it is legal - or safe - to use that runway.

It may be frustrating to sit on the ramp, but there's never been a mid-air collision between two airplanes on the ramp. If they do bump, the worst that happens is that the airlines need another airplane for those passengers. Nobody dies.

Now, launch them into the air, and throw them into the mix at their arrival station, which is having difficulty dealing with what it has and getting them down onto the ground. Usually the reason for delays has something to do with weather. So now you've gone from a situation which is difficult but manageable to one which is an outright nightmare. Put more airplanes into bad weather longer, and you're going to have more mechanical incidents. Airplanes declaring emergencies and throwing everything even further into chaos because now they've got to be taken out of turn, or they need more resources (airtime, runway time, airspace). And when airspace is cramped and getting more so, there are going to be more mid-air collissions. I'm unaware of any mid-air in which any of the passengers (or crew) of any airliner lived to tell about it.

I was a controller for twelve years. If there is going to be a delay, it's better for everyone if the delay is taken on the ground. I've seen what can happen when severe weather unexpectedly hits. For instance, there's a gap of eleven miles between restricted airspace northeast of Los Angeles (near Barstow), and through that gap all of the aircraft coming into and out of Southern California to and from areas north and east must go - or it has to go 200 miles north, or south to Palm Springs (another narrow busy corridor for stuff coming into and out directly east), or almost to the Mexican border, where there is an even narrower gap between the Mexican border and restricted airspace. When a thunderstorm hits any of these areas, the aircraft cannot go through it and expect to emerge in one piece. And in all of these places, you have aircraft climbing and descending in each other's face on directly opposite courses, and not much lateral room to work with. What are you going to do? There are contingency plans to use most of the restricted airspaces, but they take some time to implement, and in the meantime you have airliners all over the sky. The last thing you want to do is add more airplanes into the mix. So they start holding aircraft or re-routing them, and now other sectors are trying to deal with more aircraft holding right in the way of traffic flow, or putting them through in ways that the airspace wasn't designed to accommodate. It gets to be a large mess very quickly.

The only way to really remove airplanes from the problem is to put them on the ground, or keep them there. You can't pull off to the side of the road at 37,000 feet. Nor can the airplane sit on the freeway at 35,000 feet. We should all know what happens to airplanes that try either or these. Now keep in mind how many new airports (two) and new runways at existing commercial airports (zero) have been laid down since 1970. The best control system possible can't put you safely on the ground unless there's a runway available for that airplane to use. In other words, if you want to get on the ground sooner, you need to have some serious discussions about the factors that have been keeping runways from getting poured - NIMBYs and BANANAs, environmental regulations, court delays, and political wimps in office. If your portion of the economy is tied to the availability of air travel and you're part of the reason why no new runways have happened, you can look in the mirror for the responsible party. Nor will complaining do you any good.

Now, perhaps the airlines can come up with a better alternative as to how to handle the delays. For example, loading passengers only when they are expected to depart within 30 minutes. Perhaps just informing people about lengthy expected delays and letting them make their own call, knowing they might have to take the next flight. This would necessarily involve a lot more flexibility on gate use and perhaps even necessitate more gate sharing agreements. Both of those can certainly be done, but they are really a matter of logistics. The real issue is too many airplanes trying to do the same thing at the same time. Either some of them are going to be delayed, or there are going to be accidents. Airline accidents have a near certainty of being fatal to everyone on board and often, to some people on the ground who didn't even agree to board that airplane under those conditions. As frustrating as delays are, given these facts, they are the least bad option.

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.

In the hope that maybe a little fresh air will clean it out

"Feds Say Air Controller Slept 2 Hours"

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — In the day leading up to the crash of Comair Flight 5191, a federal investigator says the air traffic controller on duty had worked for almost 15 hours and slept for two.

National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman, the lead investigator in the crash that killed 49 people, said in her final briefing before leaving Lexington Thursday that the controller had only nine hours off between work shifts Saturday.

That was just enough to meet federal rules, which require a minimum of eight hours off between shifts, Hersman said.

"He advised our team that he got approximately two hours of sleep," Hersman said.

I worked as a controller for twelve years. In that time, the "backward rotation" or "phase advancing" was de riguer for controllers. This one evidently had nine hours off. More frequently, it's eight, the bare legal minimum.

At Los Angeles Center, where I worked for part of that time, the schedule is typical for the twenty-four hour facilities. Your first shift of the week started at 2:30pm, and you worked until 10:30pm. Then your next one started at 1:30, and ended at 9:30. Due to staffing considerations, lunch was subject to interruption for traffic, and you were not allowed to leave the facility, therefore the straight eight hour shift.

The next shift after that could be anything. Sometimes it started at noon, sometimes at 10, sometimes at 8, and perhaps at 6:30 am, leaving you only nine hours off between shifts. The fourth shift always started at 6:30 am and went to 2:30 pm. And finally the fifth shift could be another 6:30 start time, or it could be a 10:30 pm start time that same night. This left an individual controller with the following number of hours between shifts: 15, anywhere from 9 to 14.5, then between 16 and 10.5 depending upon the previous gap, and finally either 16 or 8. So whereas a worker with a regular shift has an aggregate of four 15 or 15.5 hour gaps, for a total of 60 to 62 hours of downtime during their work week, the controller has a total of either 56 or 48. It doesn't seem like much of a difference, between eight and fourteen hours. But the only place for that difference to come out of is sleep. They still have to drive home. They still have to unwind. Most folks need to eat. They still have to get ready for work, and they still have to drive back. Particularly during the rapid rotation shift that you would have every week, and especially if you had a mid shift so that you faced two rapid shifts forward, if you failed to get to sleep quickly during that period, you were a zombie during your next shift, as you were starting from a maximum of about five and a half hours of sleep, and losing sleep off that. I lived right in Palmdale, but many controllers there lived in places 45 minutes to an hour and a half drive each way (to be fair, some of them made a habit of using motels for the "quick turn" shifts.)

The FAA, for its part, always said (publicly) that it supported controllers who didn't feel sufficiently rested to work safely. However, in practice, if a controller called in with something like that as a reason, they could expect plenty of grief over it, ranging from a supervisor who let you know in no uncertain terms that they were unhappy, to putting records in your file, to using it as justification for a less satisfactory performance review than you might otherwise have gotten. The dichotomy between official position and what really would happen was clear, and you were in for no small amount of grief if you actually did call in because you felt you weren't rested enough to be alert. Nor could you count on your peers to be supportive, as it meant they had to work harder. Finally, the shifts where you were guaranteed to have the most accumulated sleep-debt were the day shifts, which were the busiest time, towards the end of the week.

Why is this done? Well, it was in place before the 1981 strike, but after the strike it sure made staffing a lot easier to manage. And of course if you offer people three day weekends every week, that's kind of attractive to the average person.

Now try this search: Effects on alertness of rotating shiftwork. Add the phrase "Air Traffic" in there, and you get all of this wonderful research, and more:

Effects on alertness of rotating shiftwork

advancing continuous systems seemed to be associated with marginally steeper declines in alertness across the shift (F (3,1080)=2.87, p<0.05). They were also associated with shorter sleeps between morning shifts (F (1,404)=4.01, p<0.05), but longer sleeps between afternoons (F (1,424)=4.16, p<0.05).


The absence of negative effects of advancing shifts upon the chronic outcome measures accorded with previous evidence that advancing shifts may not be as harmful as early research indicated. However, this interpretation is tempered by the possibility that difficult shift systems self select those workers most able to cope with their deleterious effects. The presence of quick returns in advancing continuous systems seemed to impact upon some of the acute measures such as duration of sleep, although the associated effects on alertness seemed to be marginal.

Shiftwork in the Practice of Emergency Medicine

Clockwise shift rotation (phase delaying) places less strain on the adaptive ability of the human internal clock than phase advancement. Such rotation has been shown to result in greater worker satisfaction manifested by fewer complaints about ill health and work schedules. Studies suggest a 20% increase in productivity with phase-delayed shifts compared with phase-advanced shifts.

With phase-advanced scheduling, for every hour of advancement, a full day is needed for entrainment. For example, phase advancement to an earlier shift every 7 days necessitates a week or longer to adapt after each rotation. Up to 25% of workers may not adapt. Studies suggest that the rotation most consistent with human circadian rhythm is 1 rotation every 21 days. Groups rotated at this rate have 70% fewer complaints than groups rotated every 7 days.

Into the Night: Coping with the Effects of Shiftwork

Sleep disorders can also occur, making it difficult during off duty to go to sleep, stay asleep, or experience a high quality of sleep. About 63% of nightworkers complain of sleep disturbance. Sleep length of night workers may be only 4-6 hours compared to day and afternoon workers who average 7-9 hours. This loss of sleep can become a "sleep debt" that robs an officer of energy and alertness. Evidence of sleep deficit can be seen in as short a time as 2 days of inadequate sleep, and with as few hours of sleep loss. Significant sleep deficit can accumulate after more than 3-4 nights worked in a row, and some researchers believe that a schedule of 6 nights in a row may be too exhausting (Scott, 1994). When this occurs, an officer can experience brief periods of "microsleep" in which normal activities are engaged in, but the person slips into light sleep for periods of 1-10 seconds. In one study of microsleep, participants were asked to press a button when a bright strobe light was flashed directly in their eyes every few seconds. During microsleep they did not notice the light or even that they had been asleep (Dement, 1974). Microsleep does not give a warning.

The psychological and behavioral effects of shiftwork can be equally troubling. When keeping a vigil, as in surveillance work, as early as 20-35 minutes after starting, concentration and attention can begin to lag (Krueger, 1989). Higher thinking skills are also affected. When fatigued, memory and recall are slower, logical and arithmetic reasoning have more errors, decision making is slower, and report writing and comprehension are not as good (Balkin & Badia, 1988). There is often a temptation to take shortcuts that can result in not following procedures, mishandling evidence, and safety violations.


Although there is no single work schedule that is optimal for all tasks (Krueger, 1989), many industries and emergency services have moved from three eight-hour shifts over several weeks, to two 12-hour shifts over about four days. Moving from 8-12 hours does not seem to significantly interfere with performance, and four days is about the limit of doing nightwork without making circadian changes (Folkand, 1992; Walker & Eisenberg, 1995; Williamson, Gower, & Clarke, 1994) . Studies examining such schedules have reported few ill effects and several improvements: increased productivity, higher morale, lessened fatigue, better time blocks for free time, improved family relations, reduced commuting, improved health, and more job satisfaction. Nonetheless, it is not possible at this time to recommend that all police departments convert to such a schedule. It is more advisable to design a schedule that fits the demands, risks, and personal needs of each organization.

NIOSH Update: (emphasis mine)

* As appropriate, employers might consider changes in shiftwork schedules — such as considering alternatives to permanent night shifts, avoiding quick shift changes, and adjusting shift length to the workload. Whether a particular change is useful depends on the specific work situation. When changing employees' work schedules, all aspects of the worker's job and home life should be considered, the publication suggests.

* Other potentially useful steps include scheduling heavy or demanding work at times when workers are most alert or at peak performance, providing training or awareness programs for new shiftworkers and their families, and ensuring that health care and counseling services are available to employees who work non-traditional schedules.

* Employees may consider various ways for coping with shiftwork, such as increasing their awareness of the need to get good sleep, establishing the sleep routine that works best for the individual, and looking at the utility of exercise, diet, and relaxation techniques for helping resist stress.

Shiftwork Annotated Bibliography: (emphasis mine)

This relatively comprehensive review article of research on shift schedules begins by stating, "All shift systems have advantages and drawbacks. There is no single 'optimum shift system' which can be used in industry or commerce at all work places. However, there are shift systems which are more favorable, and others which are less favorable, in the context of physiological, psychological, and social recommendations for the design of shift systems." (p.15)

Based on the research reviewed in the article, the author makes the following recommendations for shift design:

1. Night work should be reduced as much as possible, or rapid rotation should be used when needed. Slow rotation and permanent night shifts are not advised.

2. Extended workdays of 9 to 12 hours should only be used if the nature of the work is suitable. Further, where extended workdays are used, accumulated fatigue should be minimized through limited days-in-a-row.

3. An early start for the morning shift should be avoided.

4. Quick changeovers between shifts must also be avoided.

5. Consecutive days should be limited to 5 to 7 days. Additionally, schedules should include some free weekends.

6. The forward or clockwise rotation of shifts appears to be the recommended approach for continuous shift schedules.

this one has some counter-evidence:

In the UF study, 19 of the air traffic controllers worked two or three night shifts, from 4 p.m. to midnight, followed by two or three day shifts, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The other 18 worked a rapid rotation of these two shifts, followed by a third one from midnight to 8 a.m.

Over seven days of computerized testing, the controllers working the rapidly rotating three-shift schedule demonstrated a quicker reaction time during a series of spatial visualization and tracking tasks on the computer, McAdaragh said. They also improved their attention skills when learning a new cognitive task, while the other group did not, he said

(But I found no evidence they considered shiftwork rotating in the opposite direction)

but hits the nail on the head for the reason:

Air traffic controllers tend to prefer these counterclockwise rapidly rotating work schedules over weekly rotating schedules anyway because of the greater breaks they provide between work weeks, he said.

Now the research appears to be strong, if not unanimous, that rotating shifts in this fashion has detrimental effects upon alertness, alertness which is the controller's primary stock in trade. It doesn't matter how great my Plan For The Situation is if some pilot does something unexpected and I don't notice right away. The sooner I see it, the sooner I have the possibility to fix it. The longer the situation goes, the worse it gets. And in this situation, the controller who got two hours sleep didn't notice at all. Perhaps he wouldn't have noticed anyway, and it is supposed to be the pilot's responsibility to fly the aircraft in accordance with directions. Nonetheless, in practice, particularly for itinerant pilots at commercial airports, you do have to keep an eye on them to make certain they don't do stuff like take off on the wrong runway, as happened here, or just taxi across the active at the wrong time. Nor is this the first time such concerns have been cited as a contributing factor. A more alert controller would have a higher likelihood of spotting such an incident before it gets to an unavoidable stage.

Maybe he wouldn't have noticed anyway. But is seems fairly likely to me that another 49 people just died so that controllers can have longer weekends.

UPDATE: I should also link to this over at Argghhh! again to place it in context with a pilot's eye view

Near Miss at Las Vegas

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Air Controller Loses Job After Near-Miss. Except that he didn't. He was decertified on the position, perhaps from all positions of operation. This is what is known as taking precautions pending an investigation. Unless something really out of the ordinary occurred, they will re-certify him within a week or two after retraining makes certain that it's not part of a pattern.

With that said, the scenario given is one of those classic nightmares. The controller made about as huge a mistake as is possible, and the "Big Sky" theory doesn't apply on the runway. I never had one, but it's very easy to make this kind of mistake through not being quite thorough enough just once. It doesn't say whether he was working ground control or tower, but ground is usually where troubles occur at commercial airports, as things are usually set up to make things as easy and routine on the Tower controller as possible. On the other hand, (and this is speculation only, I haven't talked to anyone!) for runway crossings many tower controllers will assume when it's busy and they're talking ten miles per minute that a ground controller has checked out the runway (as they should) and won't ask to cross if it's not clear. Unfortunately, sometimes the ground controller misses the plane behind the pillar or the other controller's body blocks it. We're all human. Ground's mistake, Tower's Official Error (although Tower is far from blameless if they gave permission). I've seen any number of deconstructions of these when general aviation is involved. Large commercial aircraft are easier to spot and harder to miss, of course. The number one and two enemies for controllers are routine and complacency, and the most apt job description I've ever seen of the controller's job is "Hours and hours of mindless boredom occasionally punctuated by stark raving terror."

As I said earlier, we're all human. We have no robots to do the job, and robots probably would make a horrible hash of it, as it requires real time reactions to unpredictable events. Most controllers make mistakes; the only question is if they are little mistakes (un-noticeable to the public), mediums (somebody maybe gets delayed when there's no need), or major like this, where it was sheer dumb luck nothing horrible happened. Nonetheless, the FAA would have damned few controllers if they fired someone everytime something like this happened, so they don't (although it is one of the best tickets for promotion into management as the bureaucrats then don't want that controller to have another chance to mess up publicly).

Furthermore, there are supposed to be automated systems up to frustrate precisely this kind of error, but the FAA's procurement process is riddled with all kinds of problems. I wonder if something automated failing was a contributing factor?

AP got this one wrong, and failed to ask any of a host of obvious questions to find out what really happened. If someone with first-hand knowledge wants to contact me, I don't work for the FAA anymore, and there's nothing they can do to me. I'd be happy to report it from an "anonymous" source.

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