For the past two weeks, we have learned of a number of incidents involving sleeping on the job by air traffic controllers. Congress is outraged, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is outraged and now we see people resigning over this as well.

It’s definitely a problem and it is definitely disappointing that so many incidents can be identified as happening so recently. Outrageous? Not necessarily. Anyone who knows the life of an air traffic controller in the tower is likely unsurprised.

It’s a hard job. It’s stressful, demanding and one mistake can put your entire career at risk. Duty time in this role takes a toll on people in ways that most experience rarely. These people experience it every time they go on the job.

What I find so distressing is that no one is asking the question: “Why are all those air traffic controllers so exhausted?”

Trust me when I say that these sleep events aren’t sheer laziness. It comes from odd schedules that leave controllers sleep deprived to such a degree that if they were truck drivers, we would pull them off the road. If they were pilots, they wouldn’t be allowed to fly. But since they are air traffic controllers, we just keep pushing them.

No one should be regularly experiencing this kind of fatigue in their job and certainly no one who is in position to affect hundreds of lives. And, by the way, NextGen air traffic systems aren’t going to solve this problem.

These controllers work very odd schedules that change day to day. They have no regularity and if you think a pilot’s life is irregular, just shadow an air traffic controller for a week. Rather than villifying them and firing them, we should be investigating these incidents in a manner similar to how the NTSB investigates a transportation disaster.

We need to ask for an unbiased, non-political, solutions based investigation that addresses all the problems with firm recommendations.

Instead, we’re trying to fire people and look good in the press.

2 Responses to “Scapegoats”

  1. Why would the managers who have set the policies in place leading up to the problem, own the problem now? Budget cut? no problem, reduce staffing, change schedules, hire newbies. What? the controller fell asleep on duty? Fire them. Don’t fix the problem management started and perpetuates, just fire the slacking worker.

  2. I have a friend who works for the FAA in IT. His description of the behaviour of management at the operational level is “childish beyond belief”. To me, this kind of fatigue coupled with what I do know about the shifts often imposed do point to a fundamentally understaffed ATC corps and management set against recognizing the problem(s).

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