Sleeping Controller Hysteria

The New York Times on the sleeping controller at Washington National Airport a few days ago:

In fact, the vast majority of the nationé─˘s 19,000 airports do not have control towers. At those smaller airports, typically used for general aviation, pilots are responsible for logging into a specific frequency to broadcast their position and their intention to land. Airports that have scheduled commercial traffic, however, are required to have a tower that is staffed.

While this is mostly true, I take issue with the last sentence, because the way I read it, the author intends for the word “staffed” to imply “staffed around the clock” or “staffed when scheduled commercial flights are scheduled to arrive or depart”. Both of these interpretations, however, are false, and I’ve personally operated several flights on scheduled airlines that landed at airports that were “uncontrolled” because the tower was closed (i.e., not staffed).

(I also take issue with the general media hysteria over the idea that “uncontrolled” airports are a dangerous, risky free-for-all. There are right-of-way rules that apply to air traffic at all times, regardless of whether a disembodied voice in your headphones is telling a pilot what to do or not, and pilots are always responsible to see and avoid other aircraft when able to see outside the airplane.)

Some experts questioned whether adding a second controller for the midnight shift, when most airports restrict or shut down for traffic, would help at all.

é─˙I am not sure the answer is to have multiple heartbeats at a time of the day when nothing is happening,é─¨ said Robert W. Mann Jr., an aviation industry expert in Port Washington, N.Y. é─˙You might have well have a dog in the tower along with the controller. The dog could bite the controller if he fell asleep.é─¨

I generally agree with Mr. Mann — the answer is probably not to require two people working a graveyard shift. However, I disagree with his suggestion. The answer isn’t technological or other ways to ensure a lone controller stays awake; the answer is not to assign graveyard shifts on four consecutive nights in the first place to someone in a safety-critical position who also has multiple other responsibilities. (The controller in this incident was, apparently, a supervisor, and it’s my understanding that controllers’ shifts can vary quite a bit. We pilots deal with issues like this, too, and I don’t believe highly variable schedules are safe for pilots, either.) If that means hiring more controllers, so be it. Spending a few million dollars per year on aviation safety seems worth the tradeoff when you consider that even the least-expensive airline accident could easily cost in the hundreds of millions.

posted by Chris on 25 March 2011 at 1102 in aviation

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