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“On A Good Evening, I Get Four Hours Sleep”


Late leaving and late arriving.  That’s been virtually standard practice for many airlines during the holidays –  and every other time of the year. But why have the number of late arrivals more than doubled over the past five years? Why have millions of travelers been so consistently inconvenienced?

 

Blame it mainly on a shortage of experienced air traffic controllers to guide the planes — a serious threat to safety as well as punctuality. And blame  the personnel shortage on  the appointees of President Bush who control the Federal Aviation Administration  (FAA).

 

That’s been made extremely clear by the controllers’ union representatives and in reports by the National Transportation Safety Board and Government Accountability Office (GAO).

 

All point to FAA policies that have kept many air traffic control towers badly understaffed, subjecting the clearly demoralized men and women who operate them to long, fatiguing work shifts of up to ten hours, for up to six, sometimes seven days a week, with little time to rest between shifts.

 

The GAO reported earlier this month, for instance, that 52 percent of the controllers at the country’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Heartsfield-Jackson International, are regularly forced to work six days a week, as are between a fifth and a half of the controllers at 25 other FAA facilities.

 

In some locations, control towers have had to be shut down for hours at a time for lack of controllers.

 

Listen to what one veteran controller said of the work schedules (anonymously for fear of FAA retaliation):

 

"Hundreds, if not thousands of air traffic controllers work a day shift – typically from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. – then report back to work that night, eight or nine hours later … On a good evening, I get four hours sleep."

 

The threat to passenger safety should be obvious — the possibility of improperly guided planes smashing into each other in the air or on runways, or going dangerously off course and crashing.  The GAO said the threat will remain "until the human factors involving fatigue are addressed." Yet FAA officials "indicated they had no plan to mitigate the effects of air traffic controller fatigue."

 

The threat is not theoretical.  Consider the crash of a Conair jet on takeoff from the Lexington, KY airport in August of last year that killed all 49 passengers and crew members. Only one controller was on duty, although staffing requirements called for two, and the lone controller had had only nine hours between shifts – and only two hours sleep.

 

Consider, too, that incidents of planes nearly colliding have been steadily increasing. The controllers have tried through their union to improve the situation, but the FAA rejected union demands for improvements during negotiations for a new contract last year, then imposed new work rules that made the situation even worse.

 

Controllers lost their right to take rest breaks after every two hours of their eye-straining high-anxiety work of following aircraft paths across radar screens, and lost their right to refuse to work overtime, however fatigued or stressed they might be.

 

The contract forced on them also undermines the controllers’ solidarity by setting the pay of new hires almost one-third lower than that of veteran controllers. The FAA is also planning to unilaterally increase the workloads of new and veteran employees alike by an average of 10 percent over the next few years.

 

Pat Forrey, president of the controllers’ union – the National Air Traffic Controllers Association – says the FAA "has alienated, bullied and angered its entire workforce " to the point that nearly 1,600 controllers and trainees have quit or retired in the past two years.  That’s more than 10 percent of the workforce,  and the largest exodus since 1981, when Ronald Reagan fired 11,500 controllers for violating federal law by striking to try to improve their onerous working conditions.

 

One result has been that new hires and trainees now make up fully one-fourth of the workforce, the highest level since Reagan’s time. And even they are not nearly enough to make up for the steady loss of experienced controllers.

 

The House has passed a bill aimed in part at improving the controllers’ current clearly onerous working conditions by requiring the FAA to reopen contract talks with their union. But President Bush has promised to veto the bill if it passes the Senate, even though its main provision would put $114 million into sorely needed runway repairs at U.S. airports.

 

In the meantime, air traffic controllers will continue to work under conditions that threaten the safety of millions.

 

Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com

 

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