A Pilot Comes Face-to-Face with the Bureaucracy

By Robert Mark on March 28th, 2011

By now, everyone knows that a controller at National Airport Tower in Washington fell asleep on duty last week during the midnight shift. The fact that this was a supervisor up there by himself always gives the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) a chance to giggle a bit. This time though, I didn’t hear the union poking fun at the FAA’s management stumble. Good for them too.

What made the event even less tolerable to all is that National Airport is THE closest facility to the White House and sits smack dab in the middle of the most complex, security-focused airspace in the world, precisely because it is located so close to the President’s office. How in the world did the manager of National Tower not figure that another controller on the night shift might just be worth fighting for, despite what the traffic count said was required?

image That’s precisely why FAA’s Randy Babbitt – the guy at whose desk the aviation buck stops – was probably so angry at this misstep. Sure it’s embarrassing, but one controller on the midnight shift is also stupid precisely because of what occurred last week, not to mention that this could have been even uglier if a vehicle had run out on the runway when either of the two airliners landed. And Randy Babbitt knows it, because he’s not a bureaucrat … he’s a pilot who happens to have been chosen to run a bureaucracy that ranks almost dead last in terms of being a great place to work.

Pilots like to fix things, so I for one am glad Capt. Babbitt got mad, rather than simply defending this employee and explaining it on and on until reporters stopped asking questions. There are times to defend the folks that work at the agency and there are times when you say that the service delivered was simply not good enough.

Thanks for pushing that envelope a bit Capt. Babbitt.

Rob Mark, Publisher

Flight accidents that are the result of negligent behavior may call for an aviation litigation expert like Kansas City Personal Injury Attorney Robb & Robb.


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9 Responses to “A Pilot Comes Face-to-Face with the Bureaucracy”

  1. Bruce Marshall Says:

    I have a question that perhaps you can answer. Could this have happened before Reagan killed PATCO? Would the union have pushed for two controllers, or would airport management still have had its way?


  2. Robert Mark Says:

    IMHO, the death of PATCO had a great deal to do with timing, which everyone will tell you means everything.

    PATCO not only walked out on Reagan, but on e new DOT Secretary, Drew Lewis and a really tough FAA chief, J. Lynn Helms. Helms was the guy at Piper that pulled to company out of Kansas and moved the whole outfit to Florida rather than deal with the union.

    So could this have happened before Reagan, during the Carter administration, I can honestly say I don’t know. Dems tend to me more sympathetic to unions, but Carter didn’t have much of a reputation as a getting-things-done kind of guy.

    We have a lot of controllers who read here, so perhaps someone can add something else here.

  3. Martinlady Says:

    To semi-address Bruce’s question, yes, it could have happened before Reagan killed PATCO (staffing was one of their issues as well):

    1. It is not airport management who determines the number of controllers on any shift, it is FAA management.

    2. One of NATCA’s standing rules in our constitution (adopted in 1993) is about midnight staffing:

    The NATCA National Office is directed to formally approach any and all parties, as deemed necessary and prudent, to establish that all working shifts at air traffic control facilities be staffed with a minimum
    of two full performance level controllers.

    This issue has been a long-standing concern for controllers, not only for the safety of the flying public, but ourselves personally. While in this instance, it was an embarrassingly public nodding off, it could have been much worse. The person on duty could have had a heart attack or other life-threatening health issue or subjected to some sort of hostage situation.

    But like so many other things, it comes down to money versus safety. And with our staffing levels down, that comes into play again as well. Despite well-documented research that naps aid in keeping people sharp (long overseas flights, long overnight shifts, etc.), money and staffing have always precluded adding another controller to a midshift specifically to allow for short naps.

    The FAA is willing to keep one controller in a tower at those 30 fields for various reasons, but to pay two controllers – not happening any time soon. At least not without some significant outside pressure.

    If they do add another controller on the midshift, you’ll find that in a year or so, they’ll quietly start designating the majority of those same airports as uncontrolled fields on the mids and “bump” up their staffing levels during the other shifts. If that happens, it will hurt some smaller localities that are attempting to bring in maintenance and cargo flights in an effort to aid the local economy.

    I’ve been monitoring a couple forums discussing this issue and I have to say that hearing things like pilots/controllers not being able to establish communications with DCA tower somehow made the airport an “uncontrolled field” and negated the Class B airspace rules worrisome. There was no NOTAM, nothing on the ATIS, absolutely nothing to indicate that the airport was officially “uncontrolled.” Potomac couldn’t “take back” the airspace without coordination. Not acknowledged, not received.

    Do I think the pilots should be violated? No. Do I think that they were right to land and not divert? No. Do I think the Potomac controller should get disciplined? No. I think it should be a teachable moment for all of us. A reminder to think “What if this happened at noon instead of midnight? Would I make a different decision?”

  4. Stiofn Says:

    Hi Robb,

    Just to take the point here on the union and run with it, surely the union question here is not the issue. Regardless of whether the union should have pushed for a second controller or not, there should at least be a regulation put in place to ensure this situation never happened, by having another controller up there with this fella who fell asleep.
    Another point is if it’s time to bring in some new technology to monitor ATC for signs of drowsiness or fatigue, the same technology is now being used in high end cars such as Mercedes to help prevent drivers falling asleep at the wheel.


  5. Bruce Marshall Says:

    Thanks for those replies. I’m neither a pilot nor a controller. I joined the forum specifically to ask this question of those who are.

    Martinlady said that it is not airport management but FAA that decides staffing. To take that one step further, given that you acknowledge that one of PATCO’s issues was staffing, wouldn’t it be more likely that the issue would have been addressed by the FAA in response to union pressure than the way it actually played out, strictly a management (economic) decision without any interference at all by employees?

    Stiofn, I already stated my lack of qualifications, but as an outsider I have to disagree with something you said. It doesn’t make sense to me to rely on technology to keep people awake and alert. It just seems a no-brainer that at least two people is the logical solution, and most especially in the most highly controlled airspace in the world.

    BTW, I’m glad the controller wasn’t fired for being human. Had there been alcohol or drugs involved it would have been a different story, but even the most conscientious person can nod off through exhaustion.

  6. Stiofn Says:

    Hey Bruce,

    Yeah I have to agree with you, two heads up in the tower is absolutely a must, just like in the airplane they are guiding in to land.
    I suppose I just meant to look at and trial this technology as it would not hurt to have a final system of redundancy built into the ATC. I agree having two controllers up there is a no brainer but the technology could also be introduced as a failsafe? As long as it is not hijacked as cost saving to go back to one controller!
    I have to admit like yourself I am not qualified in this field, just an avid fan of the author!

  7. JetAviator7 Says:

    I remember the Regan firing of the PATCO union controllers, and it has been a long and difficult road for the controllers to get back to the levels pre-Regan.

    When it comes to safety we have 2 pilots in the cockpit, either one of which can handle the aircraft should the other be disabled.

    How is staffing a control tower at an airport like National, especially because it is so close to government buildings, be taken so lightly?

    It has always occurred to me that there is nothing as uncommon as common sense.


  8. Bruce Marshall Says:

    JetAviator, I’m just curious whether you think that things would have been different had the union survived. Would it have made a difference?

    I realize any answer is speculative, but I’m trying to get a sense of whether people who know far more than I feel that safety was compromised by the loss of the union, and perhaps whether this specific incident would likely have been avoided.

  9. Ex-FAA Says:

    Having been a statistic during the PATCO strike (fired then hired back 16 years later), I think it it is pure speculation on what might have been. Staffing, training, and pay were all legitimate issues that PATCO was strongly representing us for. However, I don’t think that we should lose sight that, in addition to Reagan and Helms playing hardball, we didn’t do ourselves any favors either. Bob Poli tried to play the David and Goliath game and (big surprise) Goliath won.

    Martinlady makes a lot of good points. FAA management gets to decide about staffing levels. I know of one facility that the FAA has been trying to close on the midnight shifts to save a couple of bucks even though many cargo and medivac flights utilize this airport. In a perfect world, NATCA has a voice. In a world that values its workers and uses a tiny bit of common sense management would realize that controllers are not the enemy. I truly believe that controllers want responsive and responsible management. Unfortunately, FAA management has been far too long worrying about its power base and discipline. Heaven forbid that you put an extra body or two on the mid shifts. Heaven forbid that you encourage the 20 minute power nap when not working a control position. Most of all, speak softly or you might wake the fire fighters who are trying to stay rested so that they can respond at full strength when needed.

    Common sense and not worrying about the win/loss column would go a long way toward solving a lot of issues. I am jaded by my experience though and can’t get my head wrapped around the FAA hierarchy doing the right thing. I hope I’m wrong.

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