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FAA Moves To Protect Passengers

Hank Krakowski, the man in charge of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Organization, resigned Thursday after a fourth incident in recent weeks at a U.S. airport in which an air traffic controller was found sleeping on the job. The FAA ordered extra staff at 27 control towers on Wednesday. It finally looks like action is being taken before a more serious incident occurs, but is it enough?

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Observers are wondering who is ultimately responsible: the controllers or the system, or both. In other words, was Krakowski sleeping on the job too?

Airline passenger advocates are skeptical about how long it took the FAA to add extra staff, even though the FAA was already in the midst of investigating previous incidents. Kate Hanni, founder of the non-profit FlyersRights.org, which runs a hotline for passengers and air workers, is concerned. “Travelers should be worried,” she says. “There have been far more than the reports we’ve ever heard about as consumers.” (A spokeswoman for the FAA declined to comment.)

Wednesday’s incident at Reno-Tahoe International Airport follows several recent cases that were being investigated by the FAA.

An air traffic controller was found sleeping at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport last month. The FAA suspended a controller at Boeing Field/King County International Airport for falling asleep Monday after that same controller fell asleep on duty in January. In a fourth case, a controller at McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee also fell asleep.

Last month, two air traffic controllers on duty couldn’t be reached at the airport in Lubbock, Texas; the FAA says that incident is currently under investigation.

In a statement Thursday, FAA administrator Randolph Babbitt said there would be a “top to bottom” review of how the FAA operates the air traffic control system. “I will continue to make whatever changes are necessary to ensure we concentrate on keeping the traveling public safe,” he said.

Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, tells Pay Dirt that the recent incidents are “unacceptable” and fully supports the FAA’s move to add extra staff, but adds, “It wasn’t just about the staffing. This is much larger issue.” The FAA and NATCA jointly commissioned a study on fatigue and scheduling, which is being currently reviewed by the FAA.

But Hanni says an overworked pilot and air traffic controller navigating the same flight could lead to a potentially “catastrophic” incident. “We need to ensure the flying public’s safety,” she says. “It’s hidden from the passenger’s view so I don’t think most passengers think about it.” Nor does she blame the controllers: “They really have to have fortitude to handle those hours and the stress. They’re made of something stronger than most Americans.”

Are you reassured by the FAA’s latest actions?

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About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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