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After what can only be described as a nightmare month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its parent agency, the Department of Transportation (DOT), are attempting to restore the public's confidence in the nation's air traffic control (ATC). Several recent incidents involving controllers sleeping on the job have rattled the industry and drawn scrutiny to the safety of the system. The agencies are preparing to meet with controllers across the nation in the hopes of learning what could be improved, while also doing a top-to-bottom review of ATC.
Here's DOT secretary Ray LaHood on the CBS Early Show today:
The main thrust of LaHood's message seems to be this: "Paying controllers to sleep will not be part of what we do at the FAA. We're not going to pay controllers to nap." Which, well, seems obvious.
He added, "We believe that these controllers are well-trained. We believe they're well-rested. But, we will do more. We will do what we have to do. We will not continue the kind of activity where seven controllers have fallen asleep."
So far, the FAA has suspended multiple controllers, with the latest being a controller caught watching a DVD on the job in Cleveland. His manager was also suspended.
From the outside, at least, the problem appears to be one of culture or mindset. Back in February, when a report showed FAA errors had doubled, a New-York-City area controller went on record saying there is a "lax atmosphere" in the control towers, and added that watching movies or playing games during slow periods was not uncommon. Throw in the recent rash of controllers caught napping, and the image that emerges is not pretty.
That said, it's difficult to determine how much of this is worth worrying about, and how much is simply poor optics. Just as it is with pilots, it's hard for travelers to differentiate between appropriate "blowing off steam" and inappropriate or dangerous behavior. Controllers, like pilots, have stressful, demanding jobs, with little room for error. Who are we to tell them how to do their jobs?
That is for the FAA to decide.