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A Times Editorial

A wakeup call for safety in the skies

With more disclosures surfacing of air traffic controllers treating airport towers as the perfect locations for sleepovers, it was only a matter of time before heads would roll. And now one has with the resignation of Henry Krakowski, who oversaw the Federal Aviation Authority's Air Traffic Organization. The move should send a wakeup call to the agency's air traffic controllers that maintaining the integrity and safety of the nation's skies leaves no room for error — or a nap.

Krakowski's departure came in the wake of several embarrassing incidents in which lone controllers working overnight shifts around the country, including at Washington's Reagan National Airport and in Reno, Nev., were unable to assist aircraft attempting to land because they had dozed off on the job. The potential for a fatal disaster because of sleepy controllers is immense.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood rightly has ordered 27 towers around the country currently using only one controller on the overnight shift to add an additional controller. It is a small step in reassuring the public that the nation's air traffic control system is safe. In Florida, two airports, both in Fort Lauderdale, are affected by LaHood's order. Tampa International Airport already has one controller in the tower and one assigned to facility's radar room.

But the potentially tragic episodes of drowsy controllers should only be the beginning of a thorough review of an air traffic control system in which obviously fatigued and overworked controllers struggle to maintain alertness. Many controllers also are nearing retirement, creating a potentially troubling experience gap in towers across the country.

Thankfully, none of incidents involving the slumbering air controllers led to disaster. But the episode that began with one controller and many late-night talk show jokes was far more serious. Tired and aging controllers represent a threat to air traffic safety that the country can no longer ignore.

A wakeup call for safety in the skies 04/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 16, 2011 6:12pm]
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