Krakowski’s FAA resignation—and accountability’s limits


Hank Krakowski, the official who oversees the nation's air traffic system, resigned Thursday. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Thursday’s resignation by Krakowski followed Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s repeated comments about his “outrage” over the “absolutely unacceptable” behavior by air traffic controllers. In recent months, several of them have been caught sleeping on the job, including one Knoxville controller who reportedly slept on purpose while on duty and a Nevada controller who allegedly fell asleep early Wednesday as a medical flight carrying a sick patient tried to land.

Amid the public controversy over the conked out controllers, it’s hard not to imagine there was plenty of pressure for Krakowski to leave. I get that leaders should be accountable for the actions of those who work for them—even the people on the front lines with whom they may not have direct contact. The safety issues are certainly extraordinary, and the front-line supervisors of the controllers who fell asleep on the job should be punished too. But Krakowski’s apparent blame-taking for someone nodding off on the job whom he doesn’t directly supervise strikes me as taking it all to a bit of an extreme.

After all, drowsy controllers have been a problem for the FAA long before Krakowski joined the agency in 2007. In fact, that very year the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report recommending that the FAA work with the union to “reduce the potential for controller fatigue by revising controller work-scheduling policies and practices.”

Perhaps Krakowski could have done more to make those changes, and his failure to do so contributed to his decision (or any pressure) to exit. But it’s not like nothing was done. The sleeping controllers appear to have been punished individually, and most of the incidents are recent enough that it’s not surprising a policy to include two air traffic controllers in the tower at all times was just instituted.

A more likely factor in Krakowski’s departure was that over the past year, the number of recorded operational errors, which are described as failures to keep aircraft at safe distances during flight, jumped by 51 percent. That’s a big jump no matter how you look at it, and reveals a systemic problem that’s likely a much bigger management issue than a handful of catnapping controllers.

Who knows how much pressure was exerted on Krakowski to resign. I’d guess there was plenty—as with any crisis, it seems, heads must roll to make a show that some action is being taken to fix the problem. But while accountability matters (a lot), it also has its limits. A spiraling number of operational errors is something a leader at the very top should be held responsible for. A few sleeping front-line workers? I’m not so sure.

More from On Leadership:

Fatigue cracks throughout the U.S. airline industry—not just 737s

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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