Air traffic controllers

Air traffic controllers Credit: ULI SEIT

Five times in the past two months, air traffic controllers working solo shifts have been caught napping on the job. It's become such an embarrassment that the Federal Aviation Administration's director of air traffic resigned yesterday.

Now, 27 airports that schedule only one controller on the graveyard (we hope not) shift to handle light post-midnight traffic are adding a second, perhaps so they can poke each other with pencils to stay awake. The problem is real, but doubling staffing isn't a cost-effective way to assure that highly paid workers remain conscious. Cheaper methods might work.

We could train collies to bark when flights are due: "What's that, Lassie? Timmy needs to land a plane?" Or pay Holiday Inns to add controllers to their wake-up call lists.

Seriously, we should:

Require controllers to check in, via phone or email, with a national administrator every 15 minutes, much as night watchmen's rounds are time-stamped, and put sirens in towers that the administrator can activate if the check-in is not received. Or:

Allow air traffic control to be done out of a regional or national center -- particularly for night shifts -- rather than from dozens of drowsy airports. These controllers help land aircraft by looking at radar and computer screens, not out the window. Those screens don't have to be in the same place as the planes.

Either solution would be better than doubling staff to handle a workload so light that it lulls lone workers to sleep.