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April 21, 2011

Sleep Solutions Abound for Controllers

Amanda Haddaway

There are people out there who enjoy flying; and then there are those people who see air travel as a means to an end. Not end, as in plane crash; but end, as in destination.


I’m part of the latter group. I love to go new places and sometimes that involves taking an airplane to a place that’s too far for other means of transportation. However, I am quite weary about the recent news on the Federal Aviation Administration’s apparent sleeping problem.


The news of FAA Air Traffic Organization Chief Hank Krakowski’s resignation came last week amid yet another incident of unresponsive air traffic controllers in the tower at the Reno-Tahoe airport. This was the sixth reported incident this year. It begs the question of how many other incidents have gone unnoticed – or unreported. Mr. Krakowski is merely a scapegoat in a much larger problem. His resignation may appease some high-level government officials, but it doesn’t solve this very grave problem.


The FAA’s interim solution is to add another staff member to the midnight shift at 27 airports across the country. According to the FAA’s website, there are more than 120 airport towers in the United States. Implementing a change at approximately 20 percent of them is merely a drop in the bucket.


According to an April 13 Bloomberg article: “The [National Transportation Safety Board] four years ago asked the FAA to work with the controllers’ union to revise work schedules and practices, and to develop a fatigue awareness program. The safety board singled out the common practice of scheduling controllers to work increasingly early shifts over a week as ‘especially problematic.’ ”


The NTSB knew of this problem four years ago, and it’s likely that they knew long before that. It’s unclear what action the FAA took on the NTSB’s request, but it appears that it wasn’t enough.


Perhaps the work shifts for air traffic controllers are too long. The FAA could probably recognize a cost-savings by converting all air traffic controllers to part-time status, or reducing their work weeks to 30 hours instead of a standard 40-hour work week.


Maybe a viable solution is to have some sort of alarm sound every 10 minutes to ensure that they are awake. Or perhaps, there should be a device that monitors the air traffic controllers’ breathing. When it becomes too slow, the controllers’ chairs could vibrate to alert them.


A bracelet-like device could be worn while on duty to monitor pulse rate. If the air traffic controllers’ pulse becomes too slow, they might feel a tightening of the cuff to “squeeze” them back to alertness.


There’s already a device made for drivers that alerts the wearer when his/her head starts to nod. If we can send a man to the moon, we surely can come up with a solution to keep our air traffic controllers awake!


It is imperative that the FAA take quick action to resolve this problem. They must devise a solution that prevents avoidable air accidents.


For now, and until the FAA gets this straightened out, I’m traveling via car and train.


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