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Regaining the public’s trust

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Anyone boarding a plane these days has to be a little concerned about what is happening on the ground while they are in the sky — whether their pilot’s request for instructions on landing or routing or traffic around them are being met by the sound of a snore.

It’s a legitimate concern in the wake of six or seven incidents in the past few weeks in which those responsible for the first line of air safety, the traffic controllers, have been found sleeping on the job. Who knows how many more cases of gross and potentially disastrous negligence have taken place without notice in a system that, while it may not be entirely broken, is certainly showing signs of disrepair.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he is going to fix the situation, and Federal Aviation Administration authorities have rushed to change schedules to keep apparently exhausted workers from drifting off while pilots are depending on them for a place to land. On several occasions, pilots have apparently taken matters into their own hands and picked a runway — a prospect that should raise the hair on the heads of even those who don’t have any.

While there is always some chance that human error will escalate into tragedy, airline officials and FAA authorities say air travel has never been safer, and that claim is borne out by a long period without major incident — at least the fatal kind. That is all well and good, but trust, particularly when it comes to one’s safety, is easily shattered, and the latest problem with the controllers has gone a long way toward doing that.

In 1981, when one of Ronald Reagan’s first significant actions as president was to end the controllers’ strike by firing anyone who didn’t immediately return to their jobs, Americans stood up and cheered, although there was an undercurrent of concern that replacements might not be up to snuff. Part of the favorable reaction was rooted in the belief that once again there was a strong presence in the White House after four years of official timidity from the predecessor. It was like President Harry Truman taking over the railroads. Reagan’s position was correct that the controllers union as a vital service had no right to strike.

Since then, most of us thought the Department of Transportation, FAA and the other agencies in charge of making sure the guys on the ground, along with those in the air, are diligent in their duties were doing a pretty good job. And once again the safety record has been evidence that our faith was not misplaced.

The problem, however, was that we apparently didn’t realize that eight hours away from the control tower was not enough interval to assure that the men and women at the radar screens remain fully alert, which is what we are now being told. There obviously has been a lack of supervision too. If the on-and-off gap needs adjusting as is now being done, it should have been spotted a long time ago. If that required the hiring and training of more controllers to ease the burden, there is no excuse for not doing it.

For crying out loud, in one incident a controller made himself a bed and slept during his overnight shift. Where was the supervision? The responsibilities of these government employees are enormous and filled with pressure. There are few assignments more important than designating runways, handing off planes and making sure flights are where they are supposed to be in the increasingly crowded skies over a nation that has become dependent on the airplane.

Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.