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‘Brain Rattler’ Schedule Among Big Problems for Air-Traffic Controllers

April 14, 2011 at 6:46 PM EST
The Federal Aviation Administration's top air-traffic control official resigned Thursday following another report of a controller sleeping on the job, forcing a medical flight to land without tower guidance in Reno. Judy Woodruff discusses the safety concerns with Alan Levin, who covers aviation for USA Today.
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JIM LEHRER: A top official with the Federal Aviation Administration resigned today, following the latest incident involving an air-traffic controller sleeping on the job.

Judy Woodruff has our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The resignation came one day after a small plane transporting an ill patient was unable to reach the control tower at Nevada’s Reno-Tahoe International Airport. The plane was forced to circle overhead.

PILOT: Can’t seem to get ahold of the tower here. I think I’m going to try and give them another call.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Controllers in Sacramento, some 120 miles away, tried to help the pilot reach Reno.

SACRAMENTO CONTROLLER: OK. We’re going to call them on the phone line.

PILOT: All right. We’ll circle some more. We have got a pretty sick patient. We may just have to land.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sixteen minutes passed as the pilot continued to circle.

PILOT: We’re going to need to land.

SACRAMENTO CONTROLLER: Zero Tango November, roger. And landing will be at your own risk.  

JUDY WOODRUFF: The plane landed safely. But Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood responded that lapses in control towers will not be tolerated.

SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION RAY LAHOOD: Well, I am totally outraged that a controller would be sleeping in a control tower when a plane is trying to land with a patient that is sick or anybody that is trying to land an airplane. This is ridiculous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The problem in Reno tops off a string of similar cases this year involving sleeping or unresponsive controllers disclosed by the FAA, including one earlier this week in Seattle and one last month at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.

As investigations continue, the FAA has ordered that an additional controller be added to the midnight shift at 27 control towers around the nation currently staffed with only one worker.

And for more on concerns about these safety questions in the sky, we turn to Alan Levin, who covers aviation for USA Today.

Alan Levin, thank you for being with us.

ALAN LEVIN, USA Today: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just to clarify, these 27 towers that just have had one person on duty overnight, what kind of towers are those?

ALAN LEVIN: They’re at medium and smaller commercial airports. So, in other words, your Chicago O’Hares or your Atlanta Hartsfield, they have multiple people on duty all night long.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you did have that incident in Washington, Reagan National. Was that unusual?

ALAN LEVIN: That an airport of that size would have that?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

ALAN LEVIN: No, it was not. And the issue at Reagan is there’s virtually no traffic, due to noise restrictions, after 1:00 a.m. and before 5:00 a.m. So, the FAA felt there wasn’t a lot to do for more than one person.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, help us understand how common these incidents are. Is this something that is — we’re seeing more of now, or it’s always been — it’s been going on for a long time, and we just haven’t heard about it?

ALAN LEVIN: Well, on the one hand, I have been covering this beat a long time, and this is the first time I have seen a spate of incidents like this, anything close to this.

But what everybody I have talked to, you know, people who actually work in the air-traffic world and the nation’s best sleep and fatigue experts say is that this is a sign of not something new but of a phenomenon that’s been going on for years.

And that’s because at least several thousand people in any given week or pay period at the FAA are working midnight shifts, and the body is simply incapable of adapting to working overnight.

And — and, with the FAA, it’s even worse than that. They have a shift that many controllers work called the rattler — it’s given that name because it rattles the brain so much — where you work a midnight shift and a day shift during a 24-hour period. It’s virtually impossible, the experts say, to get a decent amount of sleep while you do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If they’re having these kinds of shifts, is anybody arguing they shouldn’t?

ALAN LEVIN: Well, the National Transportation Safety Board, for many years, has issued recommendations and has argued that they shouldn’t. The most recent series of recommendations came in 2007.

But it’s — the FAA to date hasn’t — has been unable to do anything about it. I do have to say that there’s an effort under way right now to change that, but in some ways, all the bad publicity about this has undercut that effort, to some extent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are they saying is the reason they can’t change this?

ALAN LEVIN: Well, they’re not saying anything officially. But what we hear is that one of the key proposals is to allow people working overnight shifts to nap.

Now, we’re not talking about sacking out for the whole shift, but, you know, a very carefully monitored nap for half-an-hour, an hour, and then going back to work. And this dramatically improves your alertness and reduces errors.

But unfortunately, I think there’s a feeling in the administration that this wouldn’t pass what they call the Jay Leno test. In other words, it week ridiculed and joked about. So they’re kind of afraid to go and do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, while they figure that out, how much — what sort of safety concerns are we talking about? I mean, so far, we haven’t seen anything, at least not in these most recent incidents. Fortunately, nothing’s happened. But there has to be concern that something could happen.

ALAN LEVIN: Well, it’s always important to keep your eye on the broader picture on safety. And, you know, we have very few fatal accidents in this country involving airlines, number one.

And, secondly, accidents involving air-traffic controllers are even rarer. But having said that, the National Transportation Safety Board has been very concerned about this because there have been several very dramatic near misses of planes nearly hitting each other on the runway. And when they go back and do their investigation, they find that the controller didn’t have a good night’s sleep the night before and therefore made an error.

So, it’s clearly a safety issue that people have their eyes on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is any part of the issue not having enough air-traffic controllers? How much is that a factor here?

ALAN LEVIN: That’s a very tricky debate. It gets into politics on the Hill about the budget. It gets into union debates and that sort of thing.

I think there’s a case to be made that with more controllers, you could have these carefully monitored naps more easily. But I know there are a lot of people who say that’s nonsense. Indeed, Chairman Mica of the House Transportation Committee issued a press release yesterday attacking the addition of these controllers, saying that it was wasteful spending.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, this is clearly something a lot of people have their eye on.

And, Alan Levin, we thank you very much for giving us some insights.

ALAN LEVIN: My pleasure. Thank you.