Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Air Traffic Controller Debacle: "Zero Tolerance" For Clueless Managers?

About two hours ago, I finished writing (ranting?) about America's trillions-of-dollars of Federal debt, Congress, and getting a grip:When I was done, I had some notes left over - and I hate letting research go to waste.

Amazing Scientific Discovery! Human Beings Need Sleep!!

Actually, that's nothing new. Most folks know that we need sleep - and scientists have been studying sleep for quite a while.1

The human need for sleep is a serious issue in today's America. The latest air traffic controller to get caught sleeping on the job has become a sort of recurring news item.

Then there's the fellow who was watching a movie.2

"Zero Tolerance" Still a Cool Phrase?

After the "zero tolerance" craze in education, I'd have thought that folks in Washington would have gotten wary of the phrase. Not so, apparently:
"U.S. officials announced new shift rules for air traffic controllers Sunday as part of a 'zero tolerance' policy to stop alarming numbers of staff from falling asleep on the job....

"...The head of US air traffic control resigned Thursday, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) vowed a major shake-up to win back public trust in its safety.

" 'We expect controllers to come to work rested and ready to work and take personal responsibility for safety in the control towers,' Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in a statement announcing the new rules.

" 'We have zero tolerance for sleeping on the job,' he said. 'Safety is our top priority and we will continue to make whatever changes are necessary.'..."
(The Vancouver Sun)
Apparently saying "zero tolerance" is still considered cool in Washington's better circles.

I agree with what I hope is the underlying concept - that it's a bad idea to have air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job.

On the other hand, I do not think that the answer to this problem is punishing workers who carry out crazy orders. Like working what's euphemistically called "rotating shifts."1

Eventually, I hope that FAA managers will learn that:
  • Human beings need sleep
  • Air traffic controllers are human beings
    • Who need sleep
    • Even if a manager schedules them for crazy shifts
Or maybe the answer isn't to retrain the FAA's existing managers - but to swap them out for folks who have at least heard about human beings.

Interestingly, the FAA has suspended some supervisors, as well air traffic controllers.2 3

Plenty of Blame to Go Around

I've been following the air traffic controller debacles in the news. You've probably run into stories of pilots who call ground control - and get nothing.

For what it's worth, I think air traffic controllers should behave responsibly.

Maybe, when some of them were given work schedules that pretty much guaranteed that they'd fall asleep after the first few shifts - they should have said, respectfully: "Sir, you are a fool. I quit."

I'm not sure that I'd have had the nerve to do that - for one thing, I've needed that paycheck. And that's almost another topic.

Employment, Compensation, Working Conditions: We've Got Rules About That

The Catholic Church has a reputation for having rules about just about everything. There's something to that.

Actually, what we've got is a very thorough set of principles that we are supposed to apply to whatever local or regional culture we're in.

When it comes to working conditions, there's a set of guidelines in the Catechism under "Respect for Persons and Their Goods." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2407-2414) That set of principles also explains why the Catholic Church doesn't have a "zero tolerance" policy about gambling. And it's not because we need revenue from Bingo and raffles. (Catechism, 2413)

The next item in the Catechism is about "Respect for the integrity of creation." (Catechism, 2415-2418) - - - and that gets me back to Captain Planet and getting a grip about environmentalism. And that's a topic for another day.

Somewhat-related posts:News and views:
1 Excerpt from The Palm Beach Post News:
"...'Basically everything in our body, every chemical, every hormone, every physiological process, is on a 24-hour cycle,' said Philip Gehrman, clinical director of the sleep medicine program at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Those cycles are influenced by our hormones, and those hormones can be influenced by cues in the environment, including sunlight.

" 'One of the strongest rhythms is our sleep/wake rhythm,' Gehrman said.

"We function best when our work and sleep schedule is in sync with our inner rhythm, he said.

"To some extent, people can adapt to changes in that schedule. We've all met night owls who seem to manage the dark hours better than others. But they are a minority.

"Folks who aren't natural night lovers can coax their bodies into an alternative rhythm, experts say. Research indicates they do best with a consistent nighttime schedule - one that extends to the workers' days off.

"But air traffic controllers - and thousands of others - don't have that steady shift.

"Controllers typically move from a week of midnight shifts to a week of morning shifts to a week of late afternoon shifts.

"An inconsistent schedule puts the body in a constant state of flux: 'You're always keeping your body guessing,' said Lisa Andrews, director of special diagnostics at Delray Medical Center.

"What happens next has been the subject of numerous studies.

"One study, released in November by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, said that 'flight attendants and rotating shift workers - people who regularly alternate between day and night shifts - have been found to have learning and memory problems, decreased reaction times, higher incidences of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and cancer, and reduced fertility.'

"A 2001 study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that women who work night shifts have a 60 percent greater risk of breast cancer. The study was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

" 'The science behind this is not new,' Gehrman said. 'No one at the FAA or anywhere should act surprised.'..."
(The Palm Beach Post News)

2 Excerpt from New York Daily News:
"An air traffic controller was suspended for watching a movie while on duty.

"The suspension is the latest black eye for the Federal Aviation Administration, which has been plagued by cases of controllers sleeping on the job while working nights.

"In the latest incident, the controller was watching the Samuel L. Jackson flick 'Cleaner' on a portable DVD player early Sunday morning while on duty at a regional radar center in Oberlin, Ohio, near Cleveland.

"The worker's microphone was on, which prevented him from hearing incoming calls or giving instructions, and also broadcast the movie's soundtrack over the radio frequency for the airspace, the FAA said.

" 'The problem was brought to air traffic control's attention by the pilot of a military aircraft using an alternate frequency,' the FAA said.

"The FAA said the controller and the manager were both suspended.

"In all, the FAA has suspended eight controllers and supervisors since March, many for snoozing on the job...."
(New York Daily News)

3 Excerpt from The Vancouver Sun:
"U.S. officials announced new shift rules for air traffic controllers Sunday as part of a 'zero tolerance' policy to stop alarming numbers of staff from falling asleep on the job.

"Transport officials have been red-faced as case after case of workers snoozing in airport towers came to light in recent weeks, in some incidents leaving pilots of passenger jets to land unassisted in the US capital.

"The head of US air traffic control resigned Thursday, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) vowed a major shake-up to win back public trust in its safety....

"...The new regulations, which have already been implemented, require controllers to have at least nine hours off between shifts — one more than the current eight-hour minimum, FAA said.

"The rules also restrict shift-swapping in order to prevent short down-time between shifts, and ban controllers from switching to unscheduled midnight shifts following a single day off.

" 'Research shows us that giving people the chance for even an additional one hour of rest during critical periods in a schedule can improve work performance and reduce the potential for fatigue,' FAA administrator Randy Babbitt said in the statement.

"FAA managers, too, are now required to schedule their own shifts in a way that would assure greater coverage in early morning or late night hours.

"Babbitt and other officials will criss-cross the country in the coming week to meet controllers in several airports, and the FAA is launching a 'fatigue education program' to alert workers about fatigue risk, the agency said....

"...An FAA report in February showed an alarming jump between 2007 and 2010 in air traffic errors from 1,040 to 1,887 — a rise of 81 percent."
(The Vancouver Sun)


Brigid said...

I was wondering how you were going to connect this to Catholicism.

Brian Gill said...


;) I bet you were.

There's very little having to do with the human condition that *hasn't* been discussed by the Catholic Church by this time - which is good news for folks who like to tap into millennia of accumulated wisdom; not-so-good news for folks who want to weasel out of something. My opinion.

And that is definitely another topic or two.

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.