Monday, March 28, 2011

Championship Basketball and Sleepy Air Traffic Controllers

With a caveat that I know little about sports - something about the story of Virginia Commonwealth University's upset victory over University of Kansas in the NCAA basketball tournament on Sunday started me wondering, "When does a trickle of lapses and errors grow to a course-changing stream significant enough to cause champions to falter and underdogs to prevail?"

Undoubtedly everyone associated with the Kansas Jayhawks is asking the same question.


The personal lapse is a constant - what is athletics but a contest of human performance after all?  The job of coaches is to understand the foibles of individuals, build a plan that compensates for them, backstop the players' faults while enhancing their strengths.


The parallel to the now-famous episode in which a air traffic controller fell asleep last week in the  tower of Reagan National Airport couldn't be more clear. A trained employee, an important participant in a highly-choreographed enterprise failed. What is left for the Monday-morning quarterback is to review the event and look upwards - from the individual to the team, to the coach, to the system to see why there was no backstop for this particular controller.


Headlines encourage the demonization of sleepy staffer and they were assisted, I'm sorry to say, by the intemperate statement of FAA administrator Randy Babbitt. Perhaps now Mr. Babbitt regrets having said last week that he was "personally outraged" by the controller's behavior. Perhaps if the fellow was toting a teddy bear, blanket and pajamas to work with plans to get some shut-eye on the tower couch, the FAA chief would be justified in outrage, but I don't think that was the case.


Far more likely is the possibility that the now-suspended controller who was working his fourth overnight shift, simply succumbed to fatigue, an aviation safety reality that's been the subject of debate for so long, my eyelids are drooping just typing the word.

Some of the biggest names studying the body's need for rest; Martin Moore-Ede of Harvard, Mark Rosekind a member of the NTSB; have made inroads dealing with fatigue in the cockpit, but air traffic controllers who work the same crazy hours keeping all those pilots safely separated are still operating one-person overnight shifts at more that two dozen airports across the country, from busy Orlando, San Diego and San Juan, to Reno and Burlington, Vermont.

So news consumers are to be forgiven for leaping to blame the controller for the very human tendency to fall asleep at night. Most folks know if they fall asleep at work they'll get chastised and that's without putting an airplane full of people at risk. But the policy makers know better. Even highly motivated people fail and a system that relies on one person's infallibility is inherently unsafe.

Sports fans may yell at the referee, Bronx cheer the player who missed a shot, call the coach "an idiot" who sidelined a player, or harrumph a team owner who makes an unpopular trade. But in sports, as in life and aviation, when game goes south many decisions have a played a part.



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