Recent headlines have screamed about third shift air traffic controllers who have fallen asleep on the job, causing some inconvenience to inbound aircraft. I use the word inconvenience because there are procedures to follow when landing aircraft lose communication.  The pilots do the actual flying, not the air traffic controllers.

There are a lot of reasons why an air traffic controller may fall asleep on the job, particularly if he/she is the sole person on duty.  Late night air traffic control can be very boring.  Perhaps they haven’t had enough rest prior to their shift (another matter, indeed). In certain locations, there may be very few flight arrivals over several hours.  Tower cabs and radar rooms have subdued lighting and playing radios or other electronic devices are not allowed.

So, you have several red flag conditions contributing to an environment that make it easy for a controller to fall asleep. So the reaction from the FAA administration?

  • Suspend/fire the offenders.
  • Hire a second controller for each facility.

So with the additional personnel, you are now going to have an already light work load divided between two workers, making the non-value added situation even worse.

Let’s look at it from a mistake-proofing point of view.  What is the source error?  While there are several contributing factors, the source error is the controller falling asleep because there is not enough activity to keep him awake.

Once you have determined the source error to any defect, finding a mistake-proofing device is relatively easy.  We simply need some kind of automatic control to keep the controllers attention. Let’s brainstorm for a solution.

  • Take the controllers chairs away, so they must stand.
  • I once heard that in Australia there is a railroad track that runs absolutely straight for hundreds of miles, and because of poor track, the train can only travel at 30 mph.  To keep the engineers from falling asleep, every 3 minutes or so he has to push a button.  If the button is not pushed, the train slows to a stop.  Interlocks are in place to prevent the engineer from bypassing the intent of the button.  Perhaps we could devise a similar device for our sleepy controllers.

Here are a few suggestions taken from readers on a blog at AvWeb:

  • If there is so little traffic the controllers can’t stay awake, then I say close the tower during those hours. Spokane/GEG has airlines landing at night with the tower closed. Why double your costs when you can eliminate them? In this time of budget cuts is no time to increase costs unnecessarily. As pilots, we all know that night ops can be safely flown at night with no tower. (Note:  many smaller air traffic control towers in the USA close at night.  After hours, the pilots simply broadcast their intentions on the tower frequency.  We’ve been doing it that way since day one. Air Traffic Controllers don’t land the plane, pilots do.)
  • Anyone suggest a $200 CCTV camera run to the nearest night shift security guard? Too simple to be elegant?
  • What if the feds considered staffing the midnight shift with one controller, and one student in an ATC program. Perhaps offering college credit, a guaranteed interview, and perhaps even meager pay to the college kid would be enough to entice them, and it would be much better experience than they’ll get in the classroom. If nothing else, the night shift guys would have someone to play cards with in the off time!

Can you think of some more?

The whole point is, throwing an additional person at an under-tasked job is making a wasteful condition even worse and many companies do it.  Mistake-proof it instead.  Look at your source error, then devise a low cost/no cost method to keep it from happening. Don’t just throw more people a the problem.

How do you think we could keep a lone air traffic controller awake? Send in your comments and let’s hear your ideas.

This post was written by Sam Hoskins, CSSBB, MS, president of MistakeProofing.Net. Sam is an experienced hands-on mistake-proofing trainer and facilitator, who has conducted dozens of events for a diverse range of industries such as explosives manufacturing, processed food companies, welding and fabricating shops, and healthcare.  He learned lean and mistake-proofing while at the Ensign-Bickford Company and authored the mistake-proofing portion of their successful application for the 2001 Shingo Prize.  In addition to mistake-proofing, he is currently conducting Lean 101 training for a variety of companies through Parkland College in central Illinois. You may reach Sam at sam.hoskins@mistakeproofing.net.

Related Post: Guest Post: Preventing Mistakes – Not Just Chump Change