Expert: FAA Short on Cash, Skimping on Training and Long Aware of Sleeping Workers

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REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

An Air Tran commercial jet takes off from Reagan Washington National Airport on March 24, 2011.

On Monday, an air traffic controller in Virginia misstated the distance between a cargo plane and a jet carrying First Lady Michelle Obama, forcing her plane to abort its landing for a short time. Following on the heels of the resignation of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization chief after several controllers were caught sleeping on the job, this latest incident puts a serious problem in sharp focus. Mary Schiavo, former Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, says it’s been happening for a long time. Schiavo spoke with NewsFeed about how secrecy within the Federal Aviation Administration has perpetuated a culture where controllers are not held accountable and where budget constraints have hampered the training and selection process within air traffic control.

(More on TIME.com: Read about Michelle Obama’s plane aborting its landing)

In some of the reports about the incident with Michelle Obama’s plane, officials claim that it is a routine incident — something that happens once in a while and maybe was blown out of proportion because of who was on the plane. Is that true?

It’s not a routine thing. We shouldn’t call it a routine thing. Does it happen somewhere in America [probably] every week? Yes. That being said, it’s very serious. It’s supposed to be reported to the FAA. The controller isn’t supposed to just sweep it away. Usually the pilots of the aircraft will also report it because it’s something that they have to explain to their flight dispatcher and to their airline. It’s so serious that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is examining air-traffic control reduced separations or near misses, if you will. [Note: The NTSB announced Wednesday that it would also be opening an investigation into the Obama incident.]

With the incidents that happened in recent weeks — the two air-traffic controllers falling asleep and another watching a video while on the job — it seems like this is all happening so suddenly. But there have long been reports that air-traffic control is understaffed. Is that true? And is that the cause of these incidents?

First of all, what I ought to say is they’re not just happening now. Things like this have happened all along. When I was Inspector General of the Department of Transportation from ’90-’96 and investigating these kinds of incidents — and we usually took only the most serious ones — were commonplace. I remember one case in particular in Toledo, Ohio. That’s where I’m from, and I was like, Whoa, that’s my tower! The controller had fallen asleep and the door was locked and they couldn’t even wake him. You think, well, who’s going to fly at night in Toledo? It’s the eighth largest cargo airport in the U.S, so cargo planes had to land without air-traffic control. I think it’s because the media found out about Reagan National [where a controller fell asleep on the job in March], and they were surprised that in our nation’s capital, where supposedly we have all these additional restrictions on the airspace, that we had one controller on duty at Reagan National and he was asleep. So I don’t think necessarily that it’s the shortage. The FAA’s official position is that they are fully staffed. However, NATCA (National Air Traffic Controllers Association) and other controllers have admitted that what they wanted to do was schedule their work days back to back so they can work a four-day week. That schedule is called the rattler, because it comes back to bite you. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood put a stop to this. We’d all love a four-day workweek, but we don’t do it because if I fell asleep at my workplace the managing partners wouldn’t think much of that.

(More on TIME.com: Is air traffic control out of control?)

Is air-traffic control training less rigorous than it once was? Are efforts to ensure that they operate at capacity forcing hires of people who may not be qualified?

The switch came a few years back where the FAA did allow more outsourcing of the training. In times gone by, it was routine to wash at least a fourth of an [air-traffic control] class — maybe even a third of the class. And it was intended. They only wanted the cream of the crop. There is not so much of that now. The FAA, even when I was at DOT, was always looking for the magic bullet. They once had a contractor that was going to administer psychological tests and tell them who could be a controller and who couldn’t. That was a scam. We stopped that. The FAA always falls prey to this. They’ve got to stick with the regular full training course and then test rigorously.

Why is it so difficult for the FAA to have a standard training and hiring procedure?

Budget. They’re always looking for ways to do things cheaper, to get people through the system. I’m pretty middle of the road. There was a time during the Reinventing Government effort — it stunned me that Clinton and Gore would get sucked into this, but they had this big notion that they were going to privatize a lot of stuff, and they were going to get people off the government rolls. So there was this big push to hire contractors to do things that the FAA could do. There are some things that government can and should actually do. I think air-traffic control is one of them. It’s our airspace. It’s our national asset. They had this idea that we could contract out because other countries contract out. We’re not other countries. In some defense of the FAA, they have to do what the President says, and they wanted them to try to privatize.

What can the FAA itself do to increase accountability?

[Shining] the light of day on the FAA and air-traffic control is extremely helpful for change. They are a very secretive organization. I know several instances — for example the Hudson River midair [collision in August 2009], the Teterboro control tower, no one there has been fired. [...] That’s what I found when I was Inspector General: people would get in trouble for doing terrible things in the FAA and they would simply transfer them. The person who the FAA eventually had to surface as sharing the big hunk of responsibility for Pan-Am 103, was not fired. The controller was transferred and then transferred again through the organization, kind of like money laundering except bad-employee laundering. That’s what they do. I think that all the attention on this subject has been very helpful and it gave the Secretary of Transportation the opportunity to act.

Why do you think the FAA prefers to transfer these people around rather than fire them?

Because they protect them. It’s the mentality. They protect, and they promote from within. It’s just a very secretive organization. They view it as their own personal fiefdom. In some ways they still resent the fact that they are part of the Department of Transportation. The FAA tries to act independently and ignore the department of which they are a part.

What are the steps that need to be taken immediately?

It’s interesting and useful that this comes on the heels of the Colgan crash up in Buffalo [in February 2009] where it came to light that one of the pilots was making $16,000 a year. She’s making no money and she’s working these horrible schedules. So here it is, people are caught in this intractable system, and they have to work these terrible hours. Then we get the juxtaposition of air-traffic controllers, except that air-traffic controllers are making 10 times what the pilots are making. I don’t hand out kudos to the government unless they deserve it, but I think Secretary LaHood is on the right track. It’s accountability. An air traffic controller only has to work five days a week. They don’t have to work their schedules back to back, they chose to do that. For somebody making that kind of money, it’s not too much to ask that you come to work rested and prepared to work. The solution is exactly what the Secretary is saying, “You’re a federal employee. You’re well paid. Come to work rested.” There are lots of people who want a $160,000 a year job. I wouldn’t have just knee-jerk automatically put two controllers on overnight duty [which LaHood did after another controller was found asleep on the job this month, this time at the Reno-Tahoe airport], but I understand the reasoning.

(More on TIME.com: See a recent history of air traffic control mishaps)

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