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Sleeping air-traffic controllers prompt changes at airports, including Duluth and Fargo

Questions about overnight air traffic control standards began in earnest last month, after two flights landed at Washington Reagan National Airport despite radio silence from the airport's tower.

REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang
Questions about overnight air traffic control standards began in earnest last month, after two flights landed at Washington Reagan National Airport despite radio silence from the airport’s tower.

WASHINGTON — Duluth International Airport and Hector International Airport in Fargo, N.D., are among 27 airports that must add an extra overnight air traffic controller, federal Transportation officials ordered, after another air traffic controller was found asleep at an airport, this time in Reno, Nev.

A plane approaching Reno-Tahoe International Airport Wednesday morning with a critically ill passenger hailed the tower there for 16 minutes straight while circling the airport to no response. The control tower operator was on duty, but fast asleep. Finally, with assistance by another tower in northern California, the plane was able to land.

It’s at least the fifth time this year that an air traffic controller in the United States has been found asleep on the job. Starting immediately, airports must now have at least two controllers on the midnight shift.

“I am totally outraged by these incidents. This is absolutely unacceptable,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “The American public trusts us to run a safe system. Safety is our number one priority and I am committed to working 24/7 until these problems are corrected.”

The move seems solely a precautionary one for Duluth and Fargo, which have not been negatively mentioned in any DOT or FAA investigation. No incidents have been reported there, airport officials say.

“From a Duluth perspective, I haven’t heard of any issues with pilots not being able to reach our tower,” said Brian Ryks, executive director of the Duluth airport. “We’re a 24-hour control tower, so I don’t see any impact aside from that they’ll have an additional person.”

Most control tower employees are hired by the Federal Aviation Administration, and administrator Randy Babbitt said there will be an independent review of the FAA’s safety trainings.

Reno is fifth incident this year
Questions about overnight air traffic control standards began in earnest last month, after two flights landed at Washington Reagan National Airport despite radio silence from the airport’s tower. That tower’s operator later admitted to falling asleep on the job.

In testimony to a House committee Wednesday, Babbitt revealed several other incidents at airports in Seattle, Lubbock, Texas, and Knoxville, Tenn. In the Knoxville incident, a controller apparently made a bed out of couch cushions to aid in sleeping. After being roused by a colleague, the controller woke up and handled flights, but then went back to sleep after the colleague left.

“Air traffic controllers are responsible for making sure aircraft safely reach their destinations,” Babbitt said. “We absolutely cannot and will not tolerate sleeping on the job. This type of unprofessional behavior does not meet our high safety standards.”

The FAA’s head of air traffic operations, Hank Krakowski, resigned early today, in response to the sleeping incidents.

Both towers in Duluth and Fargo are 24-hour towers, so the airports are technically open every second of the day. But overnight is a relatively slow time for passenger service.

In Duluth, the last passenger plane of the night, United 6841 from Chicago, arrives around 11:15 p.m. The first morning flight out, Delta flight 3926 to Minneapolis-St. Paul, leaves more than four hours later at 3:25 a.m., and then it’s a nearly three-hour wait before three planes go out (to Detroit, Chicago and MSP) between 6 and 7 a.m.

Decision attacked
House Transportation Chairman John Mica, citing the lack of traffic, blasted the decision to add more staff. He’ll hold a closed hearing on the matter later today.

“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,” Mica said. “This increase in staffing, when there is little to no traffic, also misdirects our resources and focus away from congested air traffic control facilities.”

Rep. Chip Cravaack, a former pilot and vice-chairman of the Aviation subcommittee whose district includes the Duluth airport, could not be reached for comment.

Ryks complimented the employees who work at his airport in Duluth, saying the FAA has “wonderful employees and they take their job seriously.” And while not endorsing or rejecting the move, he said his expectations are that airport towers to be operational if they’re manned at all.

“Let me put it this way,” Ryks said. “If my employee is supposed to be working the night shift, I expect that employee is working.”

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Greg Ross on 04/14/2011 - 05:21 pm.

    I’ll bet John Mica has never worked a 3rd shift job in his life. My son-inlaw does as a printer and is constantly suffering from lack of sleep while he and my daughter raise my 2 grandsons.

    Just look at Nurses who battle depression from working rotating shifts at our hospitals.

    Don’t blame government intervention, blame Ronald Reagan, he started the whole problem when he fired PATCO.

  2. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 04/14/2011 - 06:00 pm.

    Interesting philosophy.

    Employee falls asleep; suspended; more people hired to keep him company in the future.

    Why am I thinking that if the employees who fall asleep are immediately fired that the problem of sleep would disappear at no additional cost to the government?

    You might have to purchase some of those systems that night watchmen use to let their bosses know that they are making their rounds of buildings.

  3. Submitted by William Pappas on 04/19/2011 - 07:57 pm.

    Ray, your approach to the problem solves nothing. When the air traffic controllers were unionized their union would demand safe working conditions that allowed their members to get regular sleep, have adequate time between shifts and otherwise insist on a working environment that promoted safety for air traffic around airports. That is the primary role of unions, to insist on working environments that are safe for their members and the public. All of these problems would be alleviated by a unionized work force. There will always be pressure by management for workers to work more hours, with less pay, with less regard for the safety of others. That is what profit is all about. It is why OSHA exists. Simply firing anyone that falls asleep fails to confront the real problem, an overworked labor pool. It merely transfers the failures of management onto the backs of workers. Nothing new there.

  4. Submitted by andy on 04/20/2011 - 11:41 am.

    Right, and making sure your workforce know in uncertain terms that they are expendable garbage isn’t going to promote safety and efficiency. Meritocracy sounds fine in the abstract, but applied in the real world it just means that the boss elevates the fawning sycophants- and that particular skill set doesn’t ensure safety or efficiency either.

    I miss Jim Oberstar on this issue- he would have been all over it. I wonder what the new Representative thinks of all this but I guess Cravaack was too busy voting to kick gram and gramps off of Medicare…

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