Troubled air traffic control system could pose political risk for Obama

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Napping air traffic controllers could cause sleepless nights for one politician: President Obama.

The president, who is already dealing with high gas prices, voter disillusionment with the economy, a budget crisis that could see the U.S. default on its debt and turmoil in the Middle East, can add the troubled air-traffic control system to his list of problems.

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Several incidents in the past few weeks have cast a pall over U.S. air safety, including an incident involving first lady Michelle Obama’s plane, though none has resulted in any accidents.

Still, reports of air traffic controllers either sleeping on the job or not being responsive to airplanes attempting to land could pose a significant political risk to the president, as a plane crash resulting from a mistake by a controller could easily be blamed on the White House.

“I’m not a technical expert [on aviation], but the bottom line is people want government to work, and they want it to work well. The closer the impact is to them, the more upset it makes them,” former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (D) told The Hill on Monday.

Glendening, who saw the commingling of transportation and politics during battles over Washington, D.C.’s, MetroRail, compared the administration’s effort to deal with sleeping air traffic controllers to local governments’ response to snowstorms because of how often people interact with the aviation system.

“Several mayors and governors have gone to political oblivion for not dealing properly with snowstorms,” Glendening said. “The impression I have is this is the same type of thing. It’s something the administration has got to get a hold of and say, ‘We can and we will improve things very quickly.’ ” 

Department of Transportation officials have tried to do that by adding an hour to the length of time air traffic controllers must be off the job between shifts. They have also ended single-person overnight shifts, fired two controllers and suspended several others.

Additionally, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made the media rounds last week to highlight the administration's efforts to improve the system and convince the flying public that the national aviation system is safe.

Separately, Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt embarked on a weeklong "Call to Action" tour of air traffic facilities to tell controllers about changes made to their schedule to allow them to have more time between shifts.

What the administration has been unwilling to consider is that air traffic controllers be allowed to nap on the job to ensure they are well-rested.

LaHood has worked to show he is indignant at the reports of sleeping air traffic controllers, so allowing them to officially nap on the job, which some scientists have said would make them more alert overall, is probably a nonstarter.

"We're not going to sit by and let that kind of behavior take place in control towers," LaHood said last week when he announced that a controller who had brought a pillow and blanket to work had been fired.

The Obama administration is sensitive to the appearance of being too friendly with labor unions, and Republican critics have argued unions are preventing sleeping controllers from being fired. The GOP would likely be quick to attack if the administration suggested worktime naps as a possible ingredient in safer skies.

The union for air traffic controllers says it has science on its side as it pushes for flight tower personnel to be allowed to take short nap breaks on overnight shifts.

But science cannot be easily explained in 30-second political ads, perhaps explaining why the proposal to allow air traffic controllers to take naps has found no support from politicians.

Babbitt's main message on the tour last week was that controllers have the “personal responsibility” to get enough rest to do their jobs.

The message they have received from Republican leaders is roughly the same.

“If you can't stay awake until midnight, there is something wrong with you. It doesn't require us doubling up,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said last month in a speech about plans to increase staffing to end single-person overnight shifts in flight towers.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi, who attended the “Call to Action” tour with Babbitt, said he agrees controllers have to do a better job of staying alert. But, free from political constraints, Rinaldi also said what LaHood and elected officials have not: that air traffic controllers could benefit from a few extra minutes of shut-eye.

He found an ally Monday in National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind.

“If you don't think you have a problem, you're not going to do anything to solve it,” Rosekind said on a conference call Monday. “Over 90 different sleep disorders exist so, on any given day, one-third of the population is going to have one.”

Rosekind acknowledged it might be politically difficult for the federal government to allow air traffic controllers to take naps on the job, but he said research proves it would reduce fatigue in flight towers.

“I go with the science,” Rosekind said. “We have many documented instances of spontaneous, uncontrolled sleeping.”

Rosekind said fatigue issues present risks in all forms of transportation, although incidents involving airplanes tend to get the most attention.

“This has been going on for a long time,” Rosekind said. “You can go back to Casey Jones and Charles Lindbergh if you want.

“If you don't have a fatigue management plan and you just throw more people at it, you're just going to have more tired people,” he said.

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