Just so we’re all on the same page here, let us take a moment to review those six infamous, high-profile incidents involving controllers sleeping on duty since February of this year:
Saturday, February 19—Knoxville McGhee Tyson Airport Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON)
Wednesday, March 23—Reagan Washington National Airport Control Tower
Tuesday, March 29—Lubbock-Preston Smith International Airport Control Tower/TRACON Combined
Monday, April 11—Boeing Field Control Tower, Seattle Control Tower
Wednesday, April 13—Reno-Tahoe International Airport Control Tower
Saturday, April 23—Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC)
It has been reported that the controller involved in the Boeing Field incident had an additional two such occurrences during one evening shift back in January of this year, and the Lubbock incident reportedly involved two controllers nodding off at approximately the same time.
This is pretty scary stuff, and I hate it when my former profession takes a black eye like this. It was, therefore, with great hope and anticipation that I awaited U.S Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s response to a problem that has been decades in the making, but which has just recently come to a head because of the staffing crisis caused by previous FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, U.S. Secretaries of Transportation Norm Mineta and Mary Peters, and the congressman most responsible for running interference for their combined ineptitude, Congressman John Mica from Florida’s 7th Congressional District. In case you missed this amazing piece of PR propaganda on Fox News Sunday, here’s the transcript and here’s the actual video. You needn’t read or view the whole thing because I’ll be quoting the relevant parts below, but feel free to check them out for yourself if at any time you find Secretary LaHood’s remarks as unbelievable as did I.
So, let us begin:
“Controllers need to take personal responsibility for the very important safety jobs that they have. We can make changes but when these controllers come to work, they have to take personal responsibility for the fact that they are guiding planes in and out of airports. It has to be done safely. They have to be well-rest and they have to be alert.”
What Secretary LaHood is saying here, quite plainly, is this is all the fault of individual controllers failing in their duty to sleep on demand, any time of the day, without regard to their body’s circadian rhythms. Additionally, controllers are expected to rush straight home and get to sleep without regard to traffic jams, the need to eat, to shower, and that nothing whatsoever—such as taking a spouse to the emergency room, or attending a mandatory parent-teacher conference that was scheduled by little Johnnie’s teacher without prior coordination, or any of myriad other excuses—will be tolerated. You will sleep on demand, and that’s an order.
I will tell you right here and now that sitting somewhere in Secretary LaHood’s offices is a report written by human sleep specialists, NASA, and NTSB. That report, on which at a minimum he has been briefed and more likely he himself has read, informed him that his demand is one with which it is humanly impossible to comply. Period. What’s more, he knew that when he made the above statement.
“Well, Chris, number one: we’re going to make sure that controllers are well-rested. We’re going to increase the rest time by an hour. This is what we’re recommending for pilots going from eight- hour rest to nine-hour rest.”
Secretary LaHood is increasing the rest period between shifts to nine hours from the previously required eight, and he’s recommending pilots follow suit. This still does not take into account any of the myriad aforementioned things that preclude a controller from getting sufficient sleep during that time. Indeed, there are probably controllers living in areas such as Southern California who have commutes running between one and two hours . . . each way . . . just so they can have an affordable place to live and in which to raise a family. If you’ve just eaten up to four hours of a nine-hour break in commuting alone, how rested is this controller going to be? Is that one additional hour really going to make a difference here? Somehow, I think most people aren’t buying that it will.
“And we’re also going to eliminate the opportunity for controllers to switch out in their positions, in their job positions, so they can have a long weekend. We’re going to eliminate that.”
That’s Secretary LaHood’s way of saying, “Controllers’ fault. Had nothing to do with it. Wasn’t me. Had no idea what was going on . . . for the full twenty-seven months I’ve been in this position.”
“Now, we’ve talked with the controller union, the president, about this. They have agreed to go along with this.”
I’ve known Trish Gilbert for years. She’s a good friend of mine. She’s the Executive Vice President of NATCA, the union of which Secretary LaHood is speaking. I’ve also met and chatted with NATCA’s President Paul Rinaldi on several occasions. I’m here to tell you, right here and now, there is no way that Trish and Paul “agreed” that swapping shifts is the problem causing controllers to nod off while on duty. Indeed, Trish has hinted to me that she and Paul were just as outraged at this backhanded attempt to place the blame on controllers as was I when I first heard it.
Are you starting to get the gist of what Secretary LaHood’s defense is here? Let us continue.
When asked by Chris Wallace why these schedules have been in place for so many years, and pressed on how just one additional hour doesn’t seem like much of a change, we were rewarded with this response:
“Because we thought controllers really were getting the rest that they needed, Chris. And it was obvious from the interviews that we’ve done with controllers that have been suspended because they fell asleep, that some of them when they were — during their rest period, may have been doing other things rather than resting.
“And so, we want to extend the rest period and we want to eliminate the opportunity for them to switch things out when they are not well-rested and switch out their positions so they can have the longer weekend.”
Secretary LaHood is once again pleading ignorance and blaming the true victims here. To paraphrase this response, Secretary LaHood is saying, “Problem? I had no idea there was a problem. Certainly took me by surprise. But, hey, even if there is a problem? Well, it isn’t my fault. Once again, like I said before, those darned controllers aren’t falling asleep on demand when they get off work.”
But remember that fatigue report? The one that’s been floating around the DoT since at least 2007, and on which he was briefed sometime after becoming Secretary in January, 2009? He did know. He had to know. He knew all along he had a controller fatigue problem practically from the first day in walked into his current position. If, by some chance, he didn’t know, he has just publicly admitted that he’s been shirking his responsibilities (something he apparently enjoys accusing his controllers of doing) and is thus unfit to serve as the Secretary of Transportation. He simply cannot have it both ways here. He either knew and lied about it, or he didn’t know and is thus incompetent beyond words and by extension far, far too incompetent to be entrusted with this nation’s vital transportation infrastructure.
And at this time there’s another point I’d like to make. In 2006, previous FAA Administrator Marion Blakey imposed upon the controller workforce a “contract” that froze pay for five years, stripped away all union participation in modernization programs, and excluded from negotiation almost every aspect involving working conditions including scheduling. So, if the agency thought that rotating schedules were dangerous and were only in place to benefit controllers, why weren’t those schedules changed to require more rest time at that time? Indeed, why have these schedules been in effect since after the PATCO strike in 1981, years before the formation of a successor union in 1987?
Here’s the dirty little secret: These compressed work schedules, in which controllers routinely put in a forty-hour work week over the course of only ninety hours or less are in place because the Agency cannot run the air traffic system without mandatory overtime. Mandatory overtime only works if controllers have at least forty-eight hours of consecutive time off between work weeks, because by federal law it is illegal for a controller to work more than six consecutive days unless there is an emergency situation. If controllers rotated the opposite way, going from earlier shifts to later ones, they would be ineligible for that extra day of mandatory overtime the Agency needs to cover for the current staffing crisis. Put another way, the Agency needs this schedule to ensure controllers are available for a minimum of forty-eight hours of work per week or the whole system collapses. Forty-eight mandatory hours of work per week is counter to the Secretary’s stated goal of ensuring controllers are given the rest they require to do their jobs.
Once again, Secretary LaHood knew that when he formulated his answer. If controllers were to agree tomorrow to the optimum schedule for rest, Secretary LaHood would have no choice but to deny it or he would have to shut down whole segments of this nation’s airspace in order to comply. Secretary LaHood is very fortunate I’m not the one making the call for NATCA, because if I were I would call his bluff today.
At this point in the interview, Chris Wallace falls into Fox News’ usual and expected anti-union diatribe about how controllers can’t be fired. Thankfully, for once, Secretary LaHood finally untangles his forked tongue and gets out an actually true statement. Controllers can be fired. Controllers are fired all the time. And if the controllers involved in the above cited incidents are found to be intentionally negligent, as appears to be the case in at least one and very possibly two of the these occasions, they will be terminated from government service. And while NATCA is required by federal labor law to represent these individuals during any potential termination proceeding, at no time will NATCA defend or excuse bad or illegal behavior that endangers flight safety. That is not who they are, and that is not what they do.
This next response from the embattled Secretary with the factually challenged script is in answer to Chris Wallace’s question as to whether controllers who are on break, breaks on which they are already allowed to eat, watch a little television, read a book, or perhaps even cruise the internet (it is, after all, their break, right?) will be allowed to shut their eyes for a few minutes. This is the crux of that aforementioned fatigue report, and Wallace points out that controllers in countries such as Germany, France, and Canada avail themselves of such opportunities to recharge and refresh themselves between periods on position. Here’s the incredible response from the man who has been briefed time and again that this is a commonsense practice he should immediately allow:
“On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps, Chris. We’re not going to allow that. They’re going be paid to do the job that they are trained to do, which involves guiding planes in and out of airports safely. We want to make sure they’re well rested. We want to make that in the workplace there’s the ability for them to do their job, but we’re not going to pay controllers to be napping. We’re not going to do that.”
Okay, so all that previous blather about making sure controllers are adequately rested for the job was just so much lip service. They can eat on break. They can play a quick hand of bridge on break. They can exercise on break. But if they’re caught napping . . . .
So much for public safety.
Next, Wallace asks if the 15,000 controllers currently in the force are enough. This would have been a perfect time for Secretary LaHood to note that the number is nowhere near 15,000 because many of those “controllers” are in fact trainees not qualified to do anything on their own. Instead, we got:
“We have about the right number of controllers. We do. We’ve looked at that and the controllers agree with us on that. Let me just say something about the FAA and our ability to really do the job we’re supposed to do.”
Secretary LaHood has just expressed once again what he thinks the union position is on staffing issues. He did this with a straight face all the while knowing that facilities are dangerously understaffed, that if every retirement-eligible controller in the country were tomorrow to turn in their papers then the system would collapse, that controllers across the nation are working mandatory overtime each and every week, that included in his staffing numbers are trainees who are unqualified on so much as even one position, and many of those who have been certified on a position or two are in fact too dangerous to be working without close supervision and guidance. This final item, certifying as safe individuals who just a few years ago would have been bounced out of the career field, is the primary reason for the current, unprecedented, and historic spike in operational errors.
That last point is very critical because of what I’m going to tell you next. It used to be that operational errors, instances where aircraft get dangerously close, used to be a rare occurrence. But facilities that would experience operational errors only once in two or three years are now reporting them at rates of sometimes two or three in a single day.
Let’s close with Secretary LaHood’s final words on the subject of safety:
“I’m like every other American. I take these things for granted. I want people to know that I wake up every day thinking about safety. We are going to work 24/7 to make sure these controllers are well- trained and alert, and I want the public to know that. Somebody is looking out for safety.”
Knowing what you do know, after we’ve dissected Secretary LaHood’s responses to this crisis and uncovered what he knew and when he knew it despite his public denials, I’ll let you decide the veracity of that statement. All I’ll say on the subject is this: There is indeed someone out there looking out for your safety. It’s NATCA, and they’re once again being ignored at the highest levels.
Finally, I said last week that it was time for FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt to go. Today I’m here to say that I may have been wrong. After seeing Secretary LaHood’s performance at covering his own derrière while throwing his controllers under the bus over at Fox News, I think I now know where the real problem lies. Secretary LaHood thinks controllers need to take “personal responsibility,” yet he has chosen to lead via an entirely different example. That’s not bold leadership; it’s moral cowardice. And that’s an unacceptable quality in an individual whose most important task is to see us through this current crisis.