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Sleeping Controller Delays Air Ambulance with Patient; Another Suspended for Watching a Movie

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Ed. note: The staff here at the Air Ambulance Weekly blog would like to point out in advance that we do not mean to be “picking on” air traffic controllers as of late – we are merely telling you about the current newsworthy events in the air medical industry that are being reported. The news media is currently watching closely and reporting heavily on air traffic control mishaps. In addition, the FAA is battling bad press and has been taking actions and enforcing new policies due to these incidents which affect everyone in all aspects of the aviation industry.

With the disclaimer out of the way, a lone air traffic controller at Reno-Tahoe International Airport fell asleep around 2am as an air ambulance carrying a patient tried to land on the runway. The pilot repeatedly tried to contact the tower for guidance. Receiving no response, he radioed a regional facility in Oakland, who tried to reach the sleeping controller.

After several minutes of waiting, the pilot became understandably impatient.

“We’ve got a pretty sick patient,” the pilot told a controller after radioing the regional facility in Oakland. “We might just have to land.”

They continued to circle the airport as the Oakland facility tried to reach the tower. After another few minutes, the pilot said over the radio “We’re gonna need to land.”

“Roger, landing will be at your own risk,” the regional controller replied. “Last reported winds were calm…”

Then, on Sunday, the FAA suspended yet another air traffic controller who apparently watched a film on a portable DVD player while he was supposed to be monitoring aircraft at a high-altitude regional radar center.

He was discovered when he accidentally left his microphone in the “transmit” position, radioing all planes in the airspace with the soundtrack to the 2007 R-rated Samuel L. Jackson movie “Cleaner.” With his microphone stuck transmitting, he was also prevented from hearing incoming radio transmissions or issuing instructions to pilots for over three minutes.

A military pilot reported the incident to the FAA, who have recently been in a no-tolerance mode towards these kind of embarrassing incidents.

The controller and his supervisor, who was reportedly aware that the controller was watching the movie, were suspended immediately. FAA policy prohibits devices like portable DVD players from being used in radar rooms.

Just a day earlier, on Saturday, an air traffic controller at the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center fell asleep during his midnight shift and was suspended, bringing the total number of these incidents this year to at least 8 – and 5 since March.

The number of air ambulances reported to have been affected by sleeping controllers is at least 5 (including 4 late-night Lifeguard air medical operations), but the actual number is possibly higher.

Yesterday, a controller allowed a plane carrying the First Lady to fly too close to a huge military cargo jet at Andrews Air Force Base. Her plane was forced to abort its landing and circle around to make another approach, landing safely.

However, on Sunday the FAA unveiled a new set of ATC rules that included:

  • Increasing the required time off between shifts by 1 hour – from 8 hours to 9.
  • Preventing controllers from swapping shifts
  • Preventing controllers from taking midnight shifts after a day off
  • Requiring FAA managers to work more early-morning and late-night shifts

The controllers union and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association have endorsed the changes, but many ATC employees have said the changes are not enough.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt admits that the recent incidents of sleeping controllers are unsettling, but says that they have helped usher in important improvements in the air traffic control system. He told NPR, “99.9 percent of the controllers do a fantastic job … The public demands from us our utmost professional work, and that’s one of the things we’re talking about here, being professional in this job.”

Some critics say that increasing the rules related to controller’s rest is not the answer. One common suggestion is to allow ATC workers to take naps during their breaks, rather than threatening them with disciplinary action. Some people feel the FAA is not aware, or at least is not acknowledging, that the human body has limits – and U.S. air traffic controllers work some of the most grueling schedules in the nation today.

In any case, the aftermath of the recent sleeping incidents was enough for Hank Krakowski, head of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization who introduced modern safety programs during his tenure, to submit his resignation – which FAA administrator Randy Babbitt accepted.

“I don’t know when I’ve ever been madder,” said Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

The FAA is already suspending and/or firing controllers who fall asleep or are otherwise unresponsive while on duty. They have also added second midnight-shift controllers at 27 specific towers that previously only had one. They have also embarked on a campaign within the organization to remind air traffic controllers how important it is not to fall asleep at their jobs. The effectiveness of any of these measures remains to be seen. What do you think should be done to prevent these kind of incidents in the future? Have you ever had to land without help from the tower on an air ambulance flight? Let us know in the comments below.

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