Sunday, June 22, 2014

OUR OPINION: Federal Aviation Administration must make passenger safety its top priority

Miami Herald >  Opinion >  Editorials

The news has been scarier than usual: Iraq is on the boil, which has serious implications for U.S. security, random and mass-shooting tragedies seem to be coming at us weekly.

Add to these the fact that air-traffic controllers are too sleepy, and anyone who boards a plane should be very afraid. The controllers are suffering from chronic fatigue while on the job — the task of keeping the millions of people who fly from here to there safe in the air. It remains a major threat to the safety of the flying public that the Federal Aviation Administration must address immediately.

It’s not as if the FAA had no idea that too many of its 15,000 air-traffic controllers are at risk of nodding off or sluggish thinking. Three years ago, it was disclosed that there were controllers who were falling asleep in front of their screens, which forced the FAA to take a closer look at work scheduling, which has contributed to the problem.

This latest disclosure is a result of a report, mandated by Congress, from the National Research Council. At issue, short-term, is the policy that allows controllers to work five eight-hour shifts over four consecutive days — the last one being a midnight shift.

Controllers love it because they get 80 hours — the equivalent of two traditional work weeks — off before they have to return to work. However, the report says that this scheduling likely results in “severely reduced cognitive performance’’ during the midnight shift because of fatigue.

The schedule might be popular, but it’s a dangerous one. The FAA should sit down with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and develop scheduling that reduces fatigue on the job and increases flight safety.

To its credit, the FAA imposed a fatigue risk management program after several controllers were caught sleeping on the job a few years ago. Cutbacks, however, have thwarted the program’s effectiveness. This is not encouraging news. Neither is what’s roaring down the pike, coming straight at helpless plane passengers and crew members at the mercy of air-traffic controllers who might — or might not — be at the top of their game. The FAA is confronting a deluge of retirements. Controllers are required to retire when they turn 56. The agency will have to replace about two-thirds of this workforce — 10,000 controllers — during the next 10 years.

In order to fill the ranks, the FAA has abandoned its hiring program, in place for almost 25 years, of recruiting controllers from among military veterans who have aviation experience and from FAA-accredited colleges and universities.

It’s a controversial move that rightly raises concerns about safety. It takes years to properly train air traffic controllers. It is imperative that the FAA — along with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx — make a persuasive case that replacing recruits who have a leg up in their knowledge of aviation with neophytes starting from scratch will not further imperil people who fly.

The report makes several recommendations, including that the FAA analyze accident and incident reports and voluntary reports by controllers to identify specific links between staffing and safety; involve controllers in staffing decisions; and ensure sufficient staffing as its modernization initiative proceeds. Next Generation Transportation System will shift from ground-based radar to a satellite system. The agency must follow through.

Flying shouldn’t be a crap shoot because someone was asleep at the switch.


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