Wake-up calls give us time to avert air travel crisis

A steady pilot makes subtle adjustments when encountering
turbulence, knowing sharp corrections can be dangerous.

The same should apply to running the nation’s air travel system.
When dealing with air traffic controllers found sleeping or
watching movies, leaders must put the issue in perspective and
avoid being compelled by emotion.

While these incidents are disturbing, they remain rare. U.S.
airlines make about 9 million flights each year.

Thankfully the recent spate of fatigue and distraction in the
control tower hasn’t led to any accidents. Or even near-misses.

Aviation officials should resist the common governmental
temptation to throw fistfuls of money at an issue while it’s in the
spotlight.

We agree, for example, with Transportation Secretary Ray
LaHood’s blanket refusal to pay controllers to nap while on duty.
It would also be unwise to require two employees to handle the
red-eye shift at even the sleepiest of airports.

At the core, President Barack Obama is right that this is a
matter of personal responsibility. Once the Federal Aviation
Administration and the controllers union finish their barnstorming
tour to talk sternly to control tower employees and offer them
advice on minimizing fatigue, the burden still will be on the
workers to keep their eyelids open and focused on the job.

Even when the spirit is willing, however, the flesh can be weak.
With a slight tug on the stick, government can help to combat the
fatigue problem.

The already announced changes, including an extra hour of
mandatory rest between shifts, are a start. Beyond that, federal
and union leaders should work together to implement something
closer to fixed schedules. Sleep experts say rotating day, evening
and overnight shifts mess with the body’s internal clock and make
proper rest more difficult.

Controllers like to stockpile shifts so they can enjoy longer
stretches of time off, so it won’t be an easy sell. Safety, though,
must come first.

These wake-up calls have come early enough to give
clear-thinking officials time to steer the nation around a
potential air travel crisis.

Apr 25th, 2011 | Posted in Travel
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