Asleep at the wheel, in the air, the tower and Washington

Snoozing Miami Air Traffic Controller Fired

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An air traffic controller in Miami snoozed and has lost a job.

Have you followed the current round of sleeping air controllers and the Federal Aviation Administrations reactions to the sleeping?  I haven’t paid a lot of attention, but there have been a couple of quotes from FAA officials that have dumbfounded me.  “No one is going to sleep on my watch!” or the latest: “We’re not going to sit by and let that kind of behavior take place in control towers,” he said. The behavior was making a bed in the tower to sleep on breaks.

Corporate or workplace culture is specific to each workplace and industry.  Every industry has a unique culture based around the routines of and behaviors that create, deliver or retail products and services.  Within that context, every separate workplace develops its own culture – so all 21 dealers deal cards to players, collect losing bets and pay winning wagers. But in each casino they do things in a unique way, deal the cards, wear different uniforms, take breaks and collect and distribute tips.  Virtually every aspect of a job can be performed in varying manners and is performed differently in different businesses and can even differ from shift to shift or from supervisor to supervisor.  It is often difficult for an outside to fathom the reasons behind some of rituals and routines; and for a new employee that is usually the most difficult task, learning and adjusting to the new culture.  Usually there is some underlying economic reasons behind industry and workplace cultures, or at least that what the practitioners seem to beleive.  The time honored way is the way – and that can mean doing things that make no economic sense at all.

I don’t fly airplanes, nor have I ever guided one in for a landing, so I don’t speak from experience or from knowledge of the industry, the skills required or the underlying financial necessities.  I do however use airplanes as a form of transportation and therefore I have a vested interest in their safety.  We all do, or there would not be the degree of federal regulation that exists.  There are some things about the industry of flying that make no sense to me, no sense at all.  Flying and landing an airplane require a high level of skill, focus on details and awareness.  Don’t we all agree on that?  So why would there be routines where people work 16 hours straight, have an 8 hour break and then come back for 16 hours?  Both pilots and air traffic controllers work difficult shifts – the  pilots not as long as the controllers, but difficult never-the-less – with short turnarounds before their next shift.  How can they possibly be at their best, alert and capable of focusing on the task at hand?

The air traffic controllers try to tell people they don’t get enough sleep – and the FAA answers back – “Stay awake or you are fired!”  Would it not make more sense to find ways to reduce the number of hours worked and increase the time available for sleep for the pilots and the air traffic controllers.  Okay, someone is going to say, but the economics of the industry are based on these routines of the pilots, crews and air controllers. Southwest, the industry’s most profitable airlines made $5 million dollars on $3 billion in revenue in the last quarter; fuel costs went up 26 percent.  That is a very thin margin and one that does not leave much room for more expenses without significant increase in ticket prices.

Now, I don’t want to pay more for a ticket and more than anyone else does – but more than that I don’t want to die because someone fell asleep at the wheel either.  Time out guys! This whole system needs to be rethought and redesigned we are courting disaster. All of you are asleep at the wheel!

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April 2011
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