The U.S. air-traffic control chief’s resignation may be the first among many steps needed to fix an agency battered by reports of workers who were sleeping instead of guiding planes safely to their destination.
The Federal Aviation Administration must address decades-old concerns about controller fatigue by examining staffing, procedures and tiredness management programs, said Darryl Jenkins, chairman of the American Aviation Institute, a Washington group that does commercial-aviation research.
The FAA is an “enormous, painfully slow” bureaucracy, Jenkins said. “Something has to happen and be publicized on nationwide TV for weeks before it will be addressed. We never deal with anything until there is a crisis.”
The FAA, which regulates safety in the world’s busiest airspace, said yesterday Chief Operating Officer Hank Krakowski resigned after reports that four controllers have been caught sleeping on the job this year. The incidents made the agency the butt of jokes from comedians such as Jay Leno at the same time it was responding to a hole in a Southwest Airlines Co. jet and a regional aircraft clipped by an Airbus A380 on the ground at New York’s Kennedy airport.
“They have not had a good couple of weeks,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica said of the FAA. “They smart” from the sleeping-controller reports, the Florida Republican told a group of reporters. “That’s got to hurt.”
“One head did roll,” Mica said yesterday. “More heads may roll in FAA.”
Resignations mean nothing if the agency doesn’t ensure towers are adequately staffed systemwide, said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.
“It shouldn’t be any surprise that any of these people are nodding off,” said Mitchell, whose Radnor, Pennsylvania group represents corporate travel managers. “Why hasn’t the FAA been listening to the air traffic controllers union for the last 20 years?”
Criticisms echo those from three years ago, when the FAA was faulted for doing too little in response to cracks found in Southwest planes and then panned for overreacting, grounding planes for safety inspections and stranding 273,000 travelers.
The FAA has also been faulted for cost overruns on an overhaul of computers at 20 centers that direct aircraft at high altitudes, making $161 million in improper payments for airport projects and moving too slowly to a satellite-based air-traffic system from one using ground radars.
The FAA said April 13 that a controller slept while a medical flight with an ill patient tried to land at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada. That brought to four the number of workers reported by the FAA as napping, including one who was on duty alone at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport as two airliners landed after midnight.
Yesterday’s resignation showed Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who oversees the FAA, was “outraged,” said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The action may help remove “a bad spot” on the FAA caused by the sleeping reports, he said.
“This is cleaning house,” Stempler said. “Bringing all the incidents up to the fore and dispensing with them at one time -- the broom will sweep.”
Asked in an interview yesterday if the move will help the FAA’s image, LaHood said, “I’m not in the image business, I’m in the safety business.
‘‘We can do better in making sure the aviation industry is the safest it can possibly be,” he said.
The test going forward is whether the FAA can address the concerns of controllers, who are extremely busy on day shifts and bored at low-activity towers during overnight hours, Jenkins said.
Options could include having FAA locations that are busier handle the traffic at airports with little activity overnight, he said. “The issue is not sleeping as much as it is that there are so few operations” at some towers, he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board asked the FAA four years ago to work with the controllers’ union to develop a fatigue awareness program and revise schedules and practices.
Sixty-one percent of controllers worked schedules that opposed normal sleep-wake patterns, the NTSB found. A schedule may look like this, the NTSB said then: The first day, a 3 p.m. shift start; the second day, a 2 p.m. start; the third day, 7 a.m.; the fourth day, 6 a.m.
The worker may return to work a fifth shift at 10 p.m. on the fourth day to get a longer weekend, the board said.
Fatigue is a “systemic problem, we need to address it in a thoughtful way,” said Kenneth Quinn, a former FAA general counsel and a partner with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP in Washington. “It’s not an easy fix. Just adding more people to a tower is not necessarily the answer.”
The FAA said April 13 it will add an extra controller at the 27 towers staffed with one worker on the midnight shift. Randy Babbitt, the FAA’s chief, and Paul Rinaldi, the controllers’ union president, will visit facilities around the country next week to reinforce the need for “the highest professional standards,” the FAA said in its statement.
“This is not acceptable,” Babbitt said of the sleeping incidents in an interview yesterday. “It’s not acceptable to controllers, it’s not acceptable to the traveling public, and it’s not going to happen again.”
“Staffing levels and fatigue are at the root of the problem,” Rinaldi said in a statement yesterday.