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Air-Traffic Snoozers Risk Sky-Hopping Wakeup: Margaret Carlson

Some mistakes are such doozies, with consequences so serious, that the only honorable thing for the perpetrator to do is own up, resign and make amends. In Washington, that rarely happens.

There may be as many as 6,600 mislabeled or unmarked graves at Arlington National Cemetery, and the closest thing to accountability so far is that two cemetery officials were allowed to retire. Bankers who threw the economy into a meltdown remain Too Big to Resign. Invade a country based on faulty rationales, then bungle the occupation? George W. Bush bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on three architects of the war in Iraq.

No wonder voters are angry: Nobody’s ever wrong. Nobody’s ever sorry.

Then last week, someone was. Henry Krakowski, chief of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Organization, resigned after a string of frightening instances of air-traffic controllers asleep at the switch -- literally. Krakowski, a Boeing 737 captain and former vice president of United Airlines in charge of safety who did aerobatic stunts on the side, was in charge of the country’s 15,000 controllers.

In January and again in April, a controller at Seattle’s King County International Airport dozed off a total of three times, twice during the same shift. At Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada, an airborne ambulance with a sick patient on board circled the runway for 16 minutes while a controller got his forty winks.

Close to Capitol

The lapse that embarrassed the FAA the most occurred at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, 20 minutes from the Capitol. As the most frequent of fliers, members of Congress were outraged that two jets had to land on their own when they couldn’t rouse anyone.

What’s amazing when you pull back the curtain on the conditions in the country’s towers is that there aren’t more near-collisions and that at least one of those doesn’t result in a midair crash.

There are a lot of officials at fault for the Rip Van Winkles in front of blinking radar screens, all the way up to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Pitifully, LaHood called for extending from eight to nine hours the minimum time between shifts, a gesture unlikely to make much of a difference. At 27 airports, instead of one controller on the night shift, the FAA says there will now be two.

No Rest

The one fix that could make a difference immediately is managing the inevitable fatigue of the late shift. Firemen, emergency-room doctors and others burning the midnight oil rest during their time on duty. In some European countries, air-traffic controllers get a quiet room with a cot.

Earlier this year, a working group of officials from the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association looked at research by the Air Force, NASA and sleep experts and recommended that controllers be allowed to take naps while colleagues covered for them. They were ignored. When it came up again during the recent trouble, LaHood shot it down: “On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps.”

If Krakowski offers a class in accountability, there’s a U.S. senator who probably should attend.

Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by the website, we learned last week the grisly details of a reckless, unauthorized landing by Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe last October at a Texas airport near his vacation house on South Padre Island.


Flying his own Cessna, Inhofe chose to disregard the giant X marking the runway as closed. He sent workers running for their lives as he “sky-hopped” over them and six vehicles. One was reportedly hit by debris, others felt the “backwash of the propeller” and still another, according to a supervisor, almost “wet his britches” he was so scared.

A senator wants to land where a senator wants to land. According to the FAA report, Inhofe noticed the X, but “still elected to land.” Airport manager Marshall Reece said, “I got over 50 years flying, three tours in Vietnam, 23,000 hours, I can assure you I have never seen such a reckless disregard for human life in my life.”

Inhofe offered various explanations: he thought he had “unlimited” use of the airport space, landed to the side of workers, and is only being criticized because an airport official he didn’t name “hates” him.

Recklessness and Recidivism

One entity that doesn’t hate him is the FAA, which had every reason to ground him and take action for what might be considered, to quote its safety manual, “deliberate, willful violations which involve gross negligence, recklessness, recidivism” -- Inhofe had two previous accidents, both very minor -- “or flagrant disregard of” FAA rules.

Instead, Inhofe submitted evidence that he’d gone for remedial training, the equivalent of traffic school.

Unlike senators, who don’t have to say they’re sorry and play by different rules, Krakowski stepped up, setting a land record for speed -- less than a month between public outrage and packing it in. We should name an airport after him.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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