Monday, April 18, 2011

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

This morning I received an e-mail from a veteran air traffic controller whose name I will not use here. I'd like to share his remarks with you:
Hello Frank,

I might be venting here a bit, but after many years of Air Traffic with the FAA, and a hitch as a Controller in the military, I think I can speak on behalf of a lot of controllers. My first thought is it makes me angry, all the negative press for a group that takes a beating day in and day out, where 95% of the general public has no clue what we do.

Does the FAA really think 9 hours between shifts is the answer? What frustrates me more than I can tell you is the NTSB after the Lexington accident said the shift work is a serious issue. Is there a reason everybody has to rotate shifts? Our facility has enough people that love to work either days or nights so this would not be an issue (sleeping at work), but the FAA refuses to let us do this. Myself, I am a night owl. I have always struggled with the morning shifts, getting off at 9pm, only to be back in at 5am. Does an extra hour help, hell no. Let me work nights, and let the folks who are early risers cover the morning shifts. We literally have enough folks to do this, but can't.

Does the FAA really think 9 hours is the fix to a controller who has a family that needs mom or dad, husband or wife, to be that, get rest, eat, sleep, s___, shower and be on his or her game? Instead of people who have never put on a headset, strapped in to pry airplanes apart making this decision, how about talking to the "average Joe" and this is solved. I truly love what I do. I truly hate my schedule. I have logged more than 100 hours of overtime this year already, and the work schedule makes life outside of work a disaster.

I can't talk to the news folks as that would get me fired, but the more sensible voices out there that know what we do, the better. I know you can't, and would not ask you to take this cause up, but the more educated voices the better. Let us solve this, and everyone is better....everyone. The system is already the safest in the world, but a flaw has been exposed, and if politicians are left to make the choices, ignoring the obvious fixes, risk that should and could be eliminated, won't.


The frustration in that message is palpable. I don't pretend to know whether the suggestions of my correspondent have merit but I do know that current procedures aren't working and the extension of the break between controller shifts from eight hours to nine seems like an inadequate measure. Let us hope that the NTSB can provoke some fundamental rethinking around these issues.


Anonymous said...

Straight nights, straight days, or straight mids is the obvious solution. I have been doing this for 27 years. I know of what I speak. And there should never be just one person in a facility. And on the mid a 2 hour nap away from position helps a lot.

faasux said...

I am a controller from Mississippi. There is a huge story behind the controller fatigue issue but no media seems interested in the truth. I have been a controller for 33 years and will soon retire. The schedules that are being discussed and criticized have been in place for 30 years. To say controllers desire this is a stretch. The compressed schedule basically does this: Your work week is 3,2,10,8,6. This is a typical non mid schedule. Your first day back starts at 3 and your last day you get off at 2. Still 2 days off. Now, here are the facts. In 2006 the FAA cut controller pay 30% and froze that pay for 4 years. The already aging workforce (56 mandatory retirement) began retiring in record numbers. The contract was fixed last year in order to put a finger in the dam. Still less pay than 2006. The union was working with the FAA about the fatigue problem, but both sides had a problem. To fix the staffing crisis controllers began having to work 10 hour days and 6 day work weeks. In order to reverse the schedule to implement the NTSB recommendations in would make it illegal for a controller to work overtime because it would put them past their maximum 6 days of work in a row. So, the 6 day work week is needed to staff facilities with MINIMUM coverage. The FAA doesn’t want to admit they have a staffing crisis and the union doesn’t want to make Obama and Lahood look bad. At my facility we have 12 certified controllers and 10 trainees with 3 more by August. We should have 23 certified controllers. It takes 2 to 3 years to be certified to work alone. No media has come close to getting this story right. One Fox news commentator wondered if this being a stressful job was a myth and maybe we are really bored. Go to the FAA school then enter training and let me know if you think we are bored. That is absurd. If there isn’t a staffing problem then why are we working 6 day work weeks and 10 hour days? Why are they not implementing the number one recommendation of reversing the schedule? They can’t make it work. 9 hours will make 0 difference. Now Obama's wife's plane gets too close to another. These errors are way up. The FAA wants us to work more airplanes(combined sectors, TRACONS combined to tower cab due to staffing)with less controllers.

Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate that your salient points are obscured by your obvious rhetoric regarding retiring controllers. The controllers were retiring in record numbers because they were hired in record numbers 20 years before. They stopped well before the contract was revised. They stopped because even pissed off controllers don't retire in the worst economy in their lives. Controllers should be able to do whatever they want on break, including nap. Scientific studies show that to be the solution. The problem is people like us, the 30 year controllers. We have the wrong views and unwillingness to consider new ways of treating the workforce. Too much "we have done it this way for... years"