Friends have been asking me what the practical implications are of air traffic controllers falling asleep during late-night shifts. News reports make it seem as though the controllers’ primary job is “guiding pilots” and therefore, without a Tower controller, the two airline pilots in their state-of-the-art plane wouldn’t be able to find their way to the airport/runway.
In fact, if properly programmed, a modern airliner can more or less fly itself from runway to runway. The vast majority of airports in the U.S. don’t have control towers. Of the towered airports, most have a part-time tower, e.g., from 7 am to 11 pm at our local (very busy) Hanscom Field. If the airport is non-towered to begin with or the tower is closed, the standard procedure is for an arriving airplane to broadcast its intentions on the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF), which is typically the same as the Tower frequency when the controllers are off-duty. A broadcast might take the form “Hanscom Traffic, Cirrus 5 miles south, entering left downwind Runway 29. Hanscom.” If an airplane were taking off, the Cirrus pilot would hear “Hanscom Traffic, Baron departing Runway 5 straight out. Hanscom” and understand that a small twin-engine plane was about to take off and fly northeast towards Maine. http://www.airnav.com/airport/KDED is an example of an airport with 213 operations per day and no tower (that is probably one of the busiest non-towered airports in the U.S. and, in fact, a tower is being put in).
If pilots can find the airport, choose a runway depending on the wind, announce their own positions, and see and avoid each other, what purpose does a Tower controller serve? At a busy airport, the controller figures out the best way to sequence and separate airplanes so that they can make maximum use of the available runways while minimizing hazards such as wake turbulence. It can be a very demanding job but, aside from helping the occasional student pilot who gets lost, has little to do with “guiding” pilots.
What if it is 3 a.m. and traffic is so light that the controller has fallen asleep? Pilots in that situation are so few and far between that they should not have any difficulty in separating themselves. What if the weather is cloudy and the airplanes are flying on instruments? This is a very common situation and it is handled by the Approach controllers issuing only one instrument approach clearance at a time. Until they hear that the cleared airplane is on the ground or has “gone missed” (elected to climb out and try again at that airport or elsewhere; a standard procedure if the weather does not meet minimum requirements or if anything unusual occurs during the approach), any other airplane that wishes to use the airport will be forced to wait (vectors or holding up in the sky; parked short of the runway on the ground).
The main challenge in the reported situations is that the pilots expected the controllers be on duty and did not expect to have to follow the established procedures for non-towered airports. At the end of a four-day trip sleeping 5-6 hours/night in Hilton Garden Inns, the last thing that an airline crew needs is to be confronted with the unexpected (i.e., not everyone can be Captain Sully!). The government has decided to address the situation by adding more personnel (at an average cost to taxpayers of at least $250,000 per year per controller, including pension and health care benefits; not clear why the “keep the first person awake” person needs to be a fully trained controller, but apparently the plan is to use the highest cost and qualified people available) but it could also have been addressed by changing the overnight procedures so that pilots would more readily revert to the non-towered procedures if unable to contact the Tower. The only existing procedure that currently applies is “loss of radio communications” in which case a pilot in instrument conditions is expected to continue the flight and land at approximately the time expected.
How would I solve the problem? Start by purchasing a treadmill for the overnight controller so that he or she could be moving at a slow walking pace rather than sitting/slumping at a desk. Maybe add some productive work that the controller could do while waiting 15-30 minutes between radio calls. Finally hire an $8/hour intern who wanted to learn about air traffic control to assist with the overnight shift (an intern would ask a lot more questions than a fully trained controller and therefore be a greater aid to staying awake). Hiring a second controller to handle a situation that arises because there is only enough work to keep 1/10th of a person busy does not seem like a wise use of taxpayer funds.
[I have some personal experience with this. For example, I landed a regional jet at the Burlington, Vermont airport after the Tower was closed as scheduled. I don’t think that our flight was late; it was simply that our schedule and the Tower’s schedule did not overlap. It felt a little strange that we were clicking the microphone 5 times (to turn on the runway and taxiway lights for 10 minutes) and making calls to “Burlington Traffic” while traveling at 230 mph with 50 passengers in the back, but we managed to land and find our way to the gate nonetheless. A corporate jet was about 3 minutes ahead of us. I don’t think anyone landed between the time that we touched down and the time that we shut off the radios.]