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After So Many Sleeping Controllers, Could the FAA Finally Be Waking Up?

In the wake of a repeated “discovery” of air traffic controllers sleeping on the job, the FAA Sunday came out with a set of new rules regarding rest time between shifts, and how controllers can bid shifts in the future. It’s supposed to fix the problem.

In the context of what’s gone on at the FAA and the air traffic control system over the past twenty years, this action by Administrator Randy Babbitt is bigger news than the sleepy-time controller story itself. That’s because it’s a set of actions that actually addressed the issue. Sorry to be blunt, but that’s not been the track record at the Federal Aviation Administration.

First, controllers sleeping on the job is not any big revelation. It was amusing to see Secretary Ray LaHood initially do his version of Captain Renault in Casablanca: he was shocked! shocked! to find sleeping going on in the ATC system. 

Particularly in cases like at Washington Reagan, where the single controller on duty was essentially a night watchman at a curfewed airport, it’s not only likely – but as events over the past week have proven – quite common that dozing was going on.

But what really should be above-the-fold headline news was that the FAA itself, in the form of its Administrator, didn’t go into damage-control mode. One can go back and look at a whole passel of failures at the FAA – particularly in regard to air traffic control issues, and the standard operating procedure was to obfuscate and deny. For example, the 20-year history of air traffic control upgrade failures, including the current “NextGen” program, has been one excuse after another from the FAA.

In this sleeping-on-the-job scandal, there were no milquetoast excuses. No vapid FAA public relations types making vague explanations. In fact, no excuses whatsoever. Just fast action by the FAA Administrator – and he did it with the full cooperation of the union that represents the air traffic controllers. On the surface this indicates that we won’t have sleeping on the job in our towers and control centers.

It’s bigger news than that. After watching the FAA and the air traffic control system for over 15 years, doing papers on the issue, and even testifying to Congress on the matter, I see a whole lot more. In particular, an FAA that has an Administrator that not only has a clue, but the expertise to turn the agency around. And instead of trying to protect the guilty, he’s come out four square, telling controllers that it’s their responsibility to be professional, and come to work ready to, well, work. Or else.

This is a whole new approach. Under Administrator Babbitt’s predecessors, the agency that oversees our air transportation system could have been filmed as a reality show, “Survivor: FAA.” 

In the mid-1990s, we had ValuJet – an airline that was wildly unsafe, but which was only acted upon by the FAA and shut down after 110 people died in a tragic crash in the Florida Everglades. (At the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearings, one FAA inspector testified that he was told by his superiors to “bury” his critical report on ValuJet, months before the incident. )

Then we had a string of other political appointees mis-managing the FAA. One was Jane Garvey, who was in charge of FAA airport security before 9/11, and at the 9/11 Commission hearings was found to have put security as a second or third priority. 

Then Marion Blakey, who flippantly advised consumers one year to “bring a good book” if they planned to fly, because airline delays would be so bad. 

The FAA Administrator’s office was a revolving-door rogues gallery. And today we have the deteriorating air traffic control system, replete with sleeping staff, to prove it.

But this action by FAA Administrator Captain Randy Babbitt regarding controller staffing clearly indicates that there’s a new sheriff in town. He has the expertise – he's a former airline captain and union leader. He knows aviation and he knows – apparently – how to manage tough problems. But he’s taking over an agency that has a lot of work to do. His job is like having to overhaul an ocean liner – there’s the engine that needs fixing, the navigation equipment to be replaced, the crew re-trained, the kitchen is out of order, and the bartenders in the lounge can’t mix a drink to save their lives. The FAA that Babbitt has inherited isn’t much different. The point is that it’s going to take a long time to get the FAA and the air traffic control system on track.

But with the actions taken Sunday, I believe we can take a lot of comfort that finally there’s leadership at the top.

Michael Boyd is an aviation expert and president of Boyd Group International.