Video: FAA’s air traffic control chief resigns

  1. Closed captioning of: FAA’s air traffic control chief resigns

    >>> air traffic control unit is out of a job, resigning under pressure after a number of controllers were caught sleeping on the job . tom costello is at reagan national airport where one of the incidents took place. good morning to you, tom.

    >> good morning, carl. in the past the ntsb warned the f.a.a. about fatigued controllers and now they are wondering at the high levels of the f.a.a. if they have a systemic problem to deal with. at the heart of the controversy over air traffic controllers sleeping on the job , the schedules they work. many controllers work an eight hour shift, then off eight. that can lead to exhaustion and it's time for a review of controller scheduling.

    >> how to develop a fatigue mitigation program and to not have the very quick turns with minimal rest so we have fatigued professionals in our air traffic control facility.

    >> reporter: the f.a.a. is investigating cases oh of controllers allegedly sleeping on the job . a medavac plane landed on its own while a controller slept. on monday hank rankowsky lost his job.

    >> what happened with controllers sleeping is outrageous, the kind of behavior we will not tolerate.

    >> reporter: the f.a.a. has ordered at least two controllers in every tower open for business overnight. for the flying public it's been three weeks of unsettling news about aviation system from the sleeping controllers to the 737 that landed with a hole in the roof to the airbus a-380 that clipped a regional jet . but it's been more than two years since anyone died in a commercial airline accident . the last fatal crash was february 2009 when flight 3407 crashed on approach outside buffalo. since then there's been intense focus on improved airline safety with new f.a.a. rules regarding pilot fatigue and training.

    >> we built in redundancies, checks. we build better planes. we operate them not only efficiently, but in a safer mann manner.

    >> reporter: 9 million takeoffs and landings and the last major airline to crash here was in 2001 . since then they have been regional jets . back to you.

    >> ray la hood is the secretary of transportation. good morning to you.

    >> good morning, meredith .

    >> you have adopted a new policy where all airports that operate 24 hours a day must have two controllers at least at the airport at any given time. why wasn't this policy in place before?

    >> it probably should have been, meredith . we need to do better at the f.a.a. we need to make sure safety is our number one priority, that we have professional people in these control towers that can guide planes in and out and there should be two people in the tower all the time.

    >> are you talking about hiring new controllers or pulling from the pool you have already?

    >> we have controllers that can fill these positions, meredith . we have the money to pay them. we're going to do a top-to-bottom review about control towers and about controllers and about the hours they work and make sure we get it right in terms of work hours, workplace rules and we're going to talk to controllers about this and make sure we have it right.

    >> isn't that the real problem? it's not so much the controllers as the work place policy that's in effect that sets them up to fail.

    >> well, that's the reason our administrator randy babbitt and the controller president paul reynaldi are going to travel and meet with controllers to get firsthand information from them. that's part of the top-to-bottom review so we can hear from controllers about what goes on in the control towers late at night and early in the morning and try to do better for them and the work they have to do.

    >> and you said yesterday when we find controllers that aren't taking their job seriously, they will be employed somewhere else. are you saying you are adopting a zero tolerance policy , that if you find a controller asleep the person will be fired?

    >> on my watch as secretary of transportation, safety is number one. there will be zero tolerance for controllers who are not doing their jobs. this is one of the most important safety jobs in america. we will not sit back on our laurels. we need to do better, meredith . we will do better and we'll make sure the right people, the most professional people are in the control towers so safety is always the number one priority.

    >> you know, congressman mika, chairman of the house infrastructure committee says it is wrong of the f.a.a. to add controllers arguing this increase in staffing when there is little to no traffic also misdirects resources and focus away from congested air traffic control facilities. what is your response to that?

    >> we're not going to let money compromise safety . is safety is the number one priority and it takes additional controllers to get to the kind of zero tolerance we want, that's what we will do. we will always find the money to make sure that safety is the number one priority for the flying public.

    >> yet the house passed a bill that would cut $4 billion from your budget. are you worried about that?

    >> of course we're worried about that. these incidents prove the case that we can't let money stand in the way of safety . we will work with congress on making sure we have the resources to have the right number of controllers, well trained, well rested and alert in the control towers . money will never compromise safety . that's our promise to the flying public.

    >> are you saying the $4 billion would negatively impact flying safety ?

    >> we'll work with congress to have the right resources to have the right controllers that are well trained and alert in the towers. that's our obligation for safety .

    >> thank you very much.

    >> thank you, meredith .

updated 4/15/2011 9:23:54 AM ET 2011-04-15T13:23:54

Publicly fuming, the FAA chief collected Thursday the resignation of the head of the U.S. air traffic system, doubled controller staffing at more than two dozen airports and ordered a sweeping review of the entire system that ensures planes fly safely, as the government sought to reassure the public that air travel is safe despite at least four instances of controllers sleeping on the job.

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But present and former controllers told The Associated Press that grueling work schedules and the design of the job itself -- sitting in a dark room at night waiting for pilots to call -- have made taking naps on the job necessary, even if unauthorized by the FAA. One whistle-blower complained to the Transportation Department that cots can be found in one radar center, most often with controllers asleep in them.

The National Transportation Safety Board warned FAA after a deadly 2006 air crash that controllers' schedules were creating unsafe situations in which they were going into work after only a few hours of sleep. But little had changed until this week when Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt said he was immediately adding a second controller on overnight shifts at 26 airports and a radar facility that had been staffed with a lone controller. Presumably the second controller provides a margin of safety if the first falls asleep.

Babbitt's order came hours after the pilot of a plane transporting a critically ill passenger was unable to raise the single controller working at 2 a.m. Wednesday in the tower of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada. The FAA said the controller, who was out of communication for 16 minutes, was sleeping. Controllers at a regional radar facility in California assisted the plane, which landed safely.

Resignation handed in
Hank Krakowski, the head of the agency's Air Traffic Organization, resigned Thursday and a replacement search was under way, Babbitt said.

"Over the last few weeks we have seen examples of unprofessional conduct on the part of a few individuals that have rightly caused the traveling public to question our ability to ensure their safety," Babbitt said in a statement Thursday. "This conduct must stop immediately."

President Barack Obama backed up his administrator, telling ABC News in an interview, "We've got it under control."

"What we also have to look at is air traffic control systems," Obama acknowledged. "Do we have enough backup, do we have enough people, are they getting enough rest time?"

The president added: "It starts with individual responsibility. And those individuals, they let a lot of people down when they fell asleep on the job."

Babbitt and National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi met privately Thursday with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to assure them that FAA is on top of the problem.

"We take our responsibilities very seriously and believe staffing levels and fatigue are at the root of the problem," Rinaldi said in a statement. "We will continue to work with the FAA and through our professional standards workgroup to provide the highest level of professionalism and safety."

The first disclosure that a controller had fallen asleep when he was supposed to be directing air traffic was on March 23. That was when two airliners landed at Washington's Reagan National Airport without assistance from the tower after pilots' repeated attempts to reach the lone air traffic supervisor on duty failed. The supervisor later acknowledged to investigators that he had fallen asleep.

Unusual, not unheard of
Dozing off at one's post is unusual, but not unheard of, said seven current and retired controllers interviewed by the AP. Six of them acknowledged briefly falling asleep while working alone at night at least once in their careers. The controllers asked not to be identified because they didn't want to jeopardize their jobs or the jobs of colleagues.

Much more common is taking a nap on purpose, they said. When more than one controller is assigned to the "midnight" shift, which usually runs from about 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., one controller will work two positions while the other one sleeps and then they switch off, controllers said.

The arrangements sometimes allow controllers to sleep as much as three or four hours out of an eight-hour shift, they said.

FAA regulations forbid sleeping at work, even during breaks. Controllers who are caught can be suspended or fired. But at most air traffic facilities the sleeping swaps are tolerated as long as they don't affect safety, controllers said.

"We've been in denial about this problem forever so you have widespread abuse of a system," said Bill Voss, a former controller and president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va. "We could have a far better system if we just admitted what is going on and put some structure around it."

A whistle-blower complaint recently filed with DOT's inspector general's office said such arrangements are the norm at night at an FAA radar center near Islip, N.Y., that handles high-altitude air traffic, one of the busiest facilities of its kind in the nation.

"Sleeping on the midnight shifts is so commonplace the controllers keep inflatable beds and blankets at the facility," the complaint said. "If you take a stroll at 2 a.m., you will see beds set up underneath the desks. More than likely there will be a controller in that bed, asleep."

The controller who fell asleep at Reagan National was on his fourth day of midnight shifts. Controllers are often scheduled for a week of midnight shifts followed by a week of morning shifts and then a week swing shifts, a pattern that sleep scientists say interrupts the body's natural sleep cycles.

Another common schedule compresses five eight-hour work shifts as close together as possible while still allowing controllers eight hours off in between. The advantage is that controllers then get three days off. But the shift is known as the "rattler" because controllers say it doubles back and bites those who work it.

That's the schedule a lone controller in the tower of the Lexington, Ky., airport was wrapping up at 6:35 a.m. on Aug. 27, 2006. He cleared a Comair regional jet for takeoff and then turned his attention to mundane tasks, failing to notice the flight's pilot made a wrong turn onto a runway that was too short. The plane crashed, killing 49 of the 50 people aboard.

NTSB cited pilot error as the cause of the accident, but noted the controller had slept only two of the previous 24 hours. The board recommended FAA and the controllers union work together to develop new scheduling policies to reduce the likelihood of fatigue.

"The concern is these particularly brutal schedules are still standard practice in most facilities," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in an interview. "What we really need to see is schedules based on scientific principles that take into consideration human limitations when it comes to fatigue."

In fact, FAA and the controllers union -- with assistance from NASA and the Mitre Corp., among others -- formed a working group a year and a half ago to study fatigue among controllers and develop recommendations. Among those recommendations, which were presented privately to Babbitt in January, is that FAA change its policies to give controllers on midnight shifts as much as two hours to sleep plus a half-hour to wake up.

But a key member of Congress said building in time to sleep on the job is unacceptable.

"I think that is totally bogus," Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told the AP. "There are so many professions that have to work long hours. I was greeted this morning by a young surgeon that had been working all night in an ER."

Sleep experts said "controlled napping" during the time of day when the body most craves sleep can be healthier for controllers and safer for the public because it helps controllers stay alert during the times they are directing aircraft.

"Just giving people eight hours off, if it's the wrong time of day, just isn't going to do it," said Gregory Belenky, a sleep expert at Washington State University in Spokane. "That might give them the opportunity to sleep, but they are physiologically unable to sleep."

Another recommendation is to allow controllers to sleep during the 20- to 30-minute breaks they typically receive while working daytime shifts.

FAA is reviewing the recommendations, agency spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

"It's not outrageous to have people in a safety job rest on duty," Voss said, citing ER doctors and firefighters who have similar practices.

"What is crazy," Voss said, "is putting two people onto a shift in a dark room with no noise and telling them to stare out a window and do nothing for eight hours, but to never fall asleep."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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