Hank Krakowski “resigned” yesterday. “Resigned” is government-speak for “he got his butt tossed out onto the street.”
But the FAA firing squad got the wrong man. Let me rephrase that. The FAA firing squad stopped well short of completing its mission.
Don’t get me wrong. FAA ATO (Air Traffic Organization) COO (Chief Operating Officer) Hank Krakowski should have been fired as one of FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt’s first orders of business when he walked through the door at FAA Headquarters almost twenty-three months ago. So should have a lot of other people in FAA management. In fact, several of them should be in jail, in my opinion. Right alongside the Congressman who helped previous FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey destroy the Agency and degrade safety margins well below minimum acceptable levels. I’m of course talking about the current Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Congressman John Mica of Florida’s 7th Congressional District. My point here, however, is that Mr. Krakowski is the fall guy for sleeping controllers when he should have been cashiered long ago for the systemic problems currently permeating the ATO and for which he bears considerable responsibility.
There have in the past two months now been five cases of controllers falling asleep on midnight shifts. It’s official. There is no denying it any longer. The nation’s aging and overworked air traffic controllers have finally reached their collective physical and mental breaking points.
It’s also hard to deny the obvious solutions, as recommended to the FAA by NASA, NTSB, practically every scientist on the planet who studies sleep, and even the FAA’s own fatigue expert Rick Huss. What are they telling FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt? They’re telling him to quit the ridiculous schedules that sometimes only afford as little as eight hours between shifts and disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythms. They’re telling him that if he doesn’t want controllers falling asleep on position, then he’d better start authorizing them to take a quick nap during their breaks. They’re telling him that an environment totally devoid of any mental stimulation whatsoever during long lulls in traffic, as frequently occurs during midnight shifts, is a recipe for unintentional dozing.
And how has Administrator Babbitt responded to all this wonderful, free, and very expert advice?
Controllers are still not allowed to nap even when on an authorized break. Controllers are still not allowed to have anything with them that might stimulate their brain just enough during zero-traffic periods that they might actually have a fighting chance of staying awake (radio, television, DVD player, reading material). Indeed, control facilities are so understaffed that controllers are still expected to work an eight-hour midnight shift without so much as a bathroom break.
Now, bear in mind that Administrator Babbitt knows what the true problems are here. He’s been told by experts in the field. He has access to confidential surveys from controllers and, yes, pilots as well, that tell him there are a lot of people falling asleep when they shouldn’t be. He even has working for him a fatigue expert who has been giving him solutions.
So, armed with all this great information, what is Administrator Babbitt’s solution to a physiological problem of potentially catastrophic proportions? Here’s some quotes from the man himself:
“Air traffic controllers are responsible for making sure aircraft safely reach their destinations.”
(Note: It’s FAA management’s job to give controllers the tools they need to be able to do their job, and one of those tools is sufficient rest and consideration of basic human physiology and natural circadian rhythms.)
“We absolutely cannot and will not tolerate sleeping on the job”
(Note: Keep in mind that recommendation for naps during breaks when you read those words and you can see just how truly out of touch this guy is.)
“This type of unprofessional behavior does not meet our high safety standards.”
(Note: Wouldn’t the true unprofessional behavior in this case be that behavior coming from the one individual who could fix this, but instead has chosen to turn a blind eye?)
Basic Human Physiological Truths: Depriving someone of water to the point where they can think of nothing else, and then ordering them to do their job and not be thirsty does not address the underlying problem. Depriving someone of food to the point of starvation and then ordering them to do their job without being hungry is just as ludicrous an example. Yet, when you analyze what Administrator Babbitt is saying about his controller workforce, he’s doing what amounts to the same thing. Administrator Babbitt is enforcing policies that deprive controllers of sleep, compounding that problem by denying them any form of mental stimulation at work, and then ordering them to do their job without being sleepy.
When we deprive prisoners of war of sleep to the point of exhaustion, we call it both torture and a war crime. When Administrator Babbitt does it to his own workforce, he blames the controllers for being human.
Administrator Babbit inherited an absolute mess and a whole slew of bad policies from the most inept and incompetent Administrator in the history of the Agency—Marion C. Blakey. Of that there can be no question. But Administrator Babbit has now had almost two years to overturn those policies and take corrective action to fix the problems Ms. Blakey left in her wake (with Congressman John Mica’s enthusiastic encouragement and support). Administrator Babbitt hasn’t done that. Thus, Ms. Blakey’s policies are now Administrator Babbitt’s policies, because in refusing to change them he has tacitly given them his approval.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is now time for Administrator Randy Babbitt to go. He has proven himself to be part of the problem rather than an advocate for safety and a source for solutions. He should have been out on the street the same day as Hank Krakowski, along with almost the entire Blakey-era management team that still to this day rots the Agency from within.
If you want this mess reversed, write your representative and senators. Tell them you don’t want your life endangered any longer because of bad management and unrealistic demands on controllers. And while you’re at it, scream both loud and long for the removal from Congressional Committee Chairmanships anyone who believes you can simply demand superhuman feats of stamina from worn-out fifty-year-old controllers in the twilight of their careers and get the desired results. If you want to know why that last point is just as important, consider this quote from Chairman Mica:
“Only in the federal government would you double up on workers, averaging $161,000 per year in salary and benefits, that aren’t doing their job.”
(Note: Chairman Mica seems to be saying that a salary “averaging $161,000 per year,” a figure by the way that miraculously changes every time he brings up controller compensation, entitles him to demand controllers somehow exempt themselves from any and all physiological needs. Perhaps, if controllers were paid $30,000 more, he could demand that they quit eating, stop using the water fountain, and stop asking for pesky little bathroom breaks as well. Anyone this out of touch has no business being in a position of oversight, and you should be outraged that he is.)
By the way, since Congressman Mica keeps bringing up the average salary and benefits of controllers, let’s take a quick look at how much this gentleman brings in for working on average two days a week over the course of a year. Congressman Mica’s base salary is $174,000. On top of that, he gets healthcare and retirement benefits and is eligible for a federal pension after only five years of service. Including benefits, we’re talking well in excess of $200,000. And then there’s that retirement thing. Five years of service averaging two days a week means Congressman Mica was eligible to live off the largesse of the U.S. taxpayer for the rest of his life after only putting in a mere 520 days of actual work. Not a bad gig considering that his only real contribution to the nation has been and continues to be endangering lives, property, and national security by degrading our ATC system to unsafe levels.
Tired of being unnecessarily endangered? Do something about it. The life you save may be your own.