Aviation official quits over sleeping controllers

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO Thu Apr 14, 2011 1:57pm EDT

An air traffic controller in a file photo. REUTERS/File

An air traffic controller in a file photo.

Credit: Reuters/File

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - The government official overseeing day-to-day air traffic operations resigned on Thursday after additional disclosures of air controllers sleeping on the job.

Hank Krakowski was director of the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Organization, which is responsible for orchestrating more than 9 million departures and arrivals at more than 400 airports annually.

His resignation was accepted by FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who said in a statement he had launched a full-scale review of how some 15,000 controllers do their job.

"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. "This conduct must stop immediately."

The FAA is investigating at least four controllers who fell asleep at work, including one who was out of radio contact while a medical flight was trying land in Nevada.

Radio silence also greeted two jetliners preparing to land in Washington, D.C., in another incident last month. Additionally, a controller at a Tennessee airport in February was found sleeping under a blanket.

On Monday, a controller at Boeing Field/King County International Airport in Seattle was suspended for falling asleep during his morning shift, the FAA said.

The controversy has alarmed safety advocates and has become fodder for late night comics. It also comes at a delicate moment for the FAA, which has faced criticism from Congress and others over the years for inefficiency and safety lapses.

Lawmakers are about to negotiate details of sweeping legislation to boost FAA operations and modernize the air traffic system, talks that under the best circumstances would require proponents to find more support than usual.

Unionized controllers have also been a target of Republicans in Congress, who now control the U.S. House of Representatives.

House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica plans a closed-door meeting with FAA leaders to discuss recent near-miss incidents involving jetliners and the sleeping controller uproar.

The controller issue focuses on overnight staffing at airport towers where certain smaller centers post one person to handle a handful of flights. The FAA said on Wednesday that it would add controllers at 27 towers for late night shifts.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in recent months has stepped up its review of controller staffing, performance and fatigue issues. This includes the near miss of a passenger jet and two military aircraft in January over the Atlantic Ocean off New York.

Suspected controller errors in 2010 hit 1,887 from 1,233 the previous year, according to the FAA. More than half were considered relatively minor, but reports in the most severe category rose to 43 from 37, FAA figures show.

(Reporting by John Crawley and Kyle Peterson; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Tim Dobbyn)

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Comments (15)
stvb6411 wrote:
Suddenly, a big “to-do” about sleeping gov’t workers. You should see the Police, Fireman and county transportation workers here in Miami. I understand the safety dimension as it regard the controllers, but wrong is wrong, and this unfettered unprofessional in government operations isn’t so surprising or uncommon from what I witness every day. Wake up America, government waste, greed, special interest are out of control.

Apr 14, 2011 11:29am EDT  --  Report as abuse
edthec wrote:
Having had a few years experience working with Air Traffic controllers I share the opinion of many others in the FAA that many of them act like pampered primadonas.

While in the USN I stood watches of 8 hours on, 8 hours off for months at a time while on a destroyer. I was alone when doing this and had no problem staying awake. After my military service I worked for a USG agency requiring shift work and again, had no problems staying awake.

I wonder if dedication to service or lack of it, is a factor at work here.

Apr 14, 2011 12:05pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
CraigJ wrote:
Suspended? Really? Personally I think the sleeping controllers should fired, stripped of all pensions and benefits and be arrested and charged with reckless endangerment. And their supervisors too…

Apr 14, 2011 12:11pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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