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What Can Be Done to Fix the FAA’s Air Traffic Controllers?

Another week, another instance of an FAA Air Traffic Controller sleeping or goofing off on the job.

This time the incident happened in Cleveland, home of the Browns, Indians and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

A Cleveland air traffic controller and a manager were suspended by the Federal Aviation Administration this week after a movie soundtrack was heard playing over a radio frequency by the pilot of a military aircraft, the FAA said Monday night.

Just off the top of my head this makes it, six or seven separate instances of air traffic controllers not doing their job this year.  Including the one involving two controllers here at Lubbock Preston Smith International Airport.

Actually, by the Washington Post’s count the FAA has now had eight instances of controllers sleeping or goofing off this year.  Luckily, there have been no major air traffic mishaps or crashes because of the incompetence of these federal employees.

However, all of this makes me wary of all of the flying I will be doing during my vacation time this summer.  I realize the FAA would say these incidents don’t reflect on their air traffic controllers as a whole and that air travel is very safe, but it’s now obvious that their system of employee management and employee conduct is broken.

The FAA for years has favored a shift management system where all employees work all of the different shifts.  The Washington Post story explains it in further detail:

One of the most popular schedules is known as the 2-2-1. Under it, a controller begins the workweek with two evening shifts, does a quick turnaround to a pair of day shifts and then does another quick turn before an overnight shift.

Those quick turnarounds — usually just eight hours — have been blamed for controller fatigue, but the 2-2-1 is favored by many controllers because it compacts their workweek and creates a weekend of at least three days.

So, apparently because FAA employees want 4-day work weeks, we as taxpayers who foot the bill have to put up with bad work-ethics and risks to the planes and passengers that fly across the country.

As I’ve stated before in my previous columns, I always bring a solution to the table if I’m going to bitch about a problem and here’s solution number one:  Go back to a more traditional form of scheduling air traffic control workers.  5-day work weeks of nine hours each (eight hours working with one hour off for a meal).  The air traffic controllers will be like any other shift job.  Some workers will be scheduled for mornings, some for days and some for nights.  Tough luck if you get put on permanent overnights.  Most jobs in the private sector have set hours and the FAA should have the same.

I realize that other 24-hour federal jobs have the same current odd-hours scheduling (meteorologists at the National Weather Service come to mind),  but we don’t hear stories about how those federal workers are falling asleep on the job and jeopardizing people’s lives.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood put the current state of the FAA air traffic controllers into context on this week’s FOX News Sunday, “We expect controllers to come to work rested and ready to work and take personal responsibility for safety in the control towers,” LaHood said Sunday. “We have zero tolerance for sleeping on the job.”

I for one, hope LaHood cleans house if he finds that too many of the current controllers don’t take the current state of concern seriously or continue misbehaving on the job.

Now, if you’re asking the question, “Where will we find new controllers if all of them get fired?”, well the national unemployment rate is still around 10 percent.  I’m sure there would be some qualified candidates in the pool of the unemployed.

The President last week said, “It’s all under control.” when talking about the current plight of the air traffic controllers.  Unfortunately, I can’t believe him, and I don’t think most you do too.

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What do you think?  Leave me your feedback.

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