Recent events put FAA back in the spotlight
To say that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has had a rough week would be a vast understatement. On April 18, the FAA suspended an air traffic controller at a regional radar center in Oberlin, Ohio, for watching a DVD while on duty. That same day, a plane carrying Michelle Obama was forced to abort its landing after coming within dangerous proximity of a freight plane. An air traffic control oversight may be to blame.
Authorities became alerted to the incident in Oberlin, Ohio, after three minutes of audio from 2007’s “Cleaner” — a thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson and Ed Harris — was transmitted to all of the aircraft the controller was supposed to be watching. What’s more, a microphone glitch prevented the controller from deciphering radio calls or instructing pilots during the incident.
A manager at the Oberlin regional radar center was also suspended in connection with the incident. This brings the total number of air traffic controllers and supervisors suspended since March to nine.
This case is the latest air traffic control mishap to make headlines, occurring after five incidents in which controllers fell asleep while on duty. The FAA is also looking into a case in which two Lubbock, Texas, controllers neglected to transfer control of a departing plane to the Fort Worth Air Route Traffic Control Center.
Cracking down on air traffic control incidents is the FAA’s aim, FAA Administrator Randy Babbit says. “None of us in this business can ... tolerate any of this,” Babbitt said in statement.” It absolutely has to stop.”
To prevent future incidents, the FAA is currently touring air traffic facilities around the nation to promote professionalism and high standards of conduct. The organization has also announced that controllers will now have at least nine hours off between shifts, up from eight. Moreover, controllers are now prohibited from switching to an unscheduled midnight shift after a day off.
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood believes these new regulations will cut down on the number of adverse events. “We expect controllers to come to work rested and ready to work and take personal responsibility for safety in the control towers. We have zero tolerance for sleeping on the job,” he said in statement. “Safety is our top priority and we will continue to make whatever changes are necessary.”
Babbitt echoes LaHood’s statement. “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,” Babbitt remarked. “Taking advantage of the time you have to rest is also a professional responsibility.”
In possibly related news, a Boeing 737 carrying Michelle Obama had to abort its landing on Monday, April 18, after coming within three miles of a C-17 military freighter. According to an official FAA statement, controllers at Andrews Air Force Base instructed the first lady’s plane to perform a “go around” to rectify the situation.
The FAA mandates at least a five-mile distance between two planes when the leading aircraft is the size of a military freighter. Any length less than this could result in severe wake turbulence for the trailing plane, possibly causing it harm.
Why the plane carrying the first lady got too close to the military freighter is unknown; however, investigators are looking into whether an oversight at the Potomac TRACON regional radar facility in Virginia and the Andrews tower in Maryland is to blame. If so, this could mean additional penalties for air traffic controllers.
Although LaHood maintains that the first lady was never in danger, he calls the incident “serious.” “It’s under investigation, we will get to the bottom of what happened and how it happened, and obviously make sure it doesn't happen again,” he said in a statement.