An aviation safety event that doesn’t harm people or equipment should be considered a learning experience, with, in the end, a positive outcome. A major exception to that rule is the odd event that alarms the public. When the public is alarmed, the general news media get agitated, which, in turn, motivates our political leaders into quick action that often misses the mark and sometimes is worse than doing nothing.
Recently, here in Washington, D.C., the public was alarmed when a night-shift tower controller at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) fell asleep and did not awake when two late flights called in expecting to be cleared to land. With advice from a controller at a nearby radar air traffic control (ATC) facility, and making radio calls in the blind as one would do at an uncontrolled airport, both aircraft landed without a problem.
It turned out that the sleeping controller was a supervisor who was pulling his fourth consecutive night shift. Readers of this magazine might remember Tom Anthony’s story about such a shift, called “The Rattler” (ASW, 3/09, p. 19). The story can be found on the Foundation’s Web site, <flightsafety.org>.
While the shifts the controller in question worked were not exactly the sequence Tom described, this statement from the story certainly seems to apply: “The real problem comes in when the acute sleep loss overlaps the major low point in the circadian rhythm. At that point, performance deteriorates to the point of being identical to someone who is legally drunk.”
Make no mistake, an air traffic controller falling asleep on the job is not to be taken lightly, even if the average number of flights handled at DCA during that particular shift is around five. Not five per hour, five total; DCA has a highly restrictive noise curfew between 9:59 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. Still, let’s try to fix this and talk about controller fatigue and fatigue countermeasures, maybe through schedule changes.
But this event rang the general public’s alarm bell, with many passengers telling the agitated news media how lucky they feel to not have been on those flights, and how fearful they are that it could happen again. Pressed for instant solutions, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered that the DCA tower henceforth will have at least two controllers at all times. That ought to do it. Airplanes have two pilots and they never both go to sleep, right?
A few days later, the Federal Aviation Administration changed procedures by which flights are handed off between ATC facilities, adding a step to confirm that a conscious controller is manning the next sector.
This is not the first time in recent history that an alarmed and uninformed public pushed political leaders to adopt quick fixes.
Sadly, more than 80 years after air travel became widely available, the general public remains profoundly ignorant about aviation, viewing it with fear, suspicion and a distrust of those in the system. Due to this, a discouraging amount of the Foundation’s efforts as a post-accident news media resource is invested in dispelling bogus theories and discrediting impossible solutions. However, as much as this might be regretted, along with political knee-jerk responses to public distress, there’s little that can be done about it other than sticking to what we know is right, grinding away in our search for that next little bit of leverage in the perpetual war against risk in aviation.