Air traffic control head’s exit leaves behind a system in turmoil

The seed that foreshadowed Hank Krakowski’s downfall Thursday was planted three years ago on a November day in a Texas hotel ballroom when he first addressed the assembled managers of the nation’s air traffic controllers.

He talked about serving pilots and he talked about working with airline dispatchers, but he made virtually no mention of the grinding day-to-day duties done by the men and women who shepherd 47,000 flights through America’s skies each day.

Krakowski was forced out as head of the federal air traffic control system after a series of recent embarrassments when controllers were caught sleeping and a year in which errors — some of them potentially disastrous — have soared.

He leaves behind a system that Federal Aviation Administration head Randy Babbitt says is in the midst of a transformation, but critics describe it as demoralized by almost eight years of turmoil and change. They see leaders like Krakowski and his predecessor, Russ Chew, both former pilots, as “airline” people who never understood the deeply embedded culture of air traffic control.

“The organizational discipline began to erode with Chew’s arrival and it continued under Hank,” said a 30-year FAA vet­eran administrator who recently retired. “I think Babbitt is in deep trouble. There’s too much going wrong for him to get his arms around it all.”

Babbitt made his frustrations clear Thursday in an internal e-mail to FAA employees.

“We have seen recent examples of unprofessional conduct on the part of a few that have rightly caused the traveling public to question our ability to ensure their safety,” Babbitt wrote.

‘Safe system’

Babbitt’s troubles come at a time when air travel appears safer than it has ever been. There hasn’t been a major airline crash in almost a decade, and there have been just two fatal commuter plane crashes in the past five years.

That impressive record has been amassed at the same time that the 15,475 air traffic controllers — whose primary safety mission is to keep planes from colliding — saw their count of recorded errors increase by 51 percent last year. Most of those errors posed little risk, but in at least a dozen cases passenger planes narrowly missed colliding in mid-air.

“We have an in­cred­ibly safe system,” said a senior FAA official who asked not to be named because he is not an authorized spokesman. “But everybody knows it’s a matter of time, and I hope when that time comes we don’t look back on it and say, ‘Yeah, I guess we should have fixed that.’ ”

Ironically, the alarming spate of incidents in which controllers were caught sleeping that cost Krakowski his job were less dangerous than they appeared. Pilots are trained to bring a plane down safely without guidance from a radar room or tower controller.

The FAA responded to five recent cases of sleeping controllers — at Reagan National Airport and in Lubbock, Texas; Knoxville, Tenn.; Reno, Nev., and Seattle — by doubling up staffing on overnight shifts. But the shift system that puts sleepy controllers behind the microphone has yet to be addressed.

They routinely work a schedule that begins with two evening shifts, followed by an eight-hour turnaround to a day shift, and then another quick turnaround to a pair of midnight shifts. The payoff for controllers is long weekends.

“They want that compressed schedule,” the senior administrator said. “We don’t impose that on them. And headquarters isn’t likely to make them get rid of it.”

Increase in near-collisions

Mistakes that put two planes on a collision course pose a greater risk to safe travel than sleeping controllers. The issue began to get public attention last June after a United Airlines flight carrying Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) came within seconds of hitting a 22-seat business jet.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which generally investigates plane crashes, began scrutinizing mid-air mishaps. It has had more than a few from which to choose.

When a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 bound for Baltimore lifted off from a Houston runway a helicopter abruptly buzzed just 50 feet above. The pilot of a United Airlines Boeing 777 taking off from San Francisco looked up to see the underbelly of a small plane.

A US Airways Airbus 319 landing in Anchorage was 100 feet above the path of a Boeing 747 cargo jet taking off for Chicago. A 50-seat regional jet was instructed to land on the same Cincinnati runway from which a Delta 737 was taking off.

A US Airways Airbus 320 taking off for Philadelphia came within 50 feet of a twin-engine turboprop cargo plane in a cloud bank over Minneapolis. In January, an American Airlines jumbo jet that had just taken off from New York with 259 people on board almost collided with a pair of 200-ton military cargo jets.

Each of those incidents occurred because of an air traffic controller’s mistake, federal records show, and on several occasions only on-board collision warning systems averted a disaster.

Babbitt says the increase in the number of reported controller errors is the result of his new system, which encourages people to report their mistakes without fear that they will be punished.

Challenges, concerns

Recent incidents of dozing on the job raise the questions of whether fatigue plays a part in the increase. Babbitt’s critics say that his new system and years of repeated reorganization that began in 2003 with the arrival of Chew have fostered a muddled organization where accountability is lacking.

“I think it’s broke,” the senior FAA official said. “In the past, there was still an underlying feeling in the field of about what we had to do. Those strong organizational ties no longer are there.”

Though he blames a failure in coherent leadership, two other factors are in play. The FAA is in the midst of hiring thousands of new controllers to replace virtually the entire work force in the next several years. Novice controllers are taking the place of about 15,000 people who were hired after President Ronald Reagan fired all the striking controllers in 1981.

Their arrival coincides with enormous competitive forces in the beleaguered airline industry to pack their arrivals and departures into choice time slots favored by passengers.

“If you want 50 planes in the sky at the same time you have to accept that it’s not going to be as safe,” the senior official said.

The now-retired FAA vet­eran said he hoped Babbitt’s promised nationwide search for Krakowski’s replacement will lead to a promotion from within rather than selection of another outsider from the airline industry.

“They have gone through so many reorganizations in the last few years that I’ve lost count,” the retiree said. “The system worked for many, many years, but when they began breaking things up and reorganizing, it all went to pieces. It’s like they can’t get a hold on their identity.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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