Week In News: Air Traffic Controllers

Yet another air traffic controller reportedly fell asleep on the job, this time in Florida. It's one of a series of similar reports from the past few weeks — and they led the head of the Air Traffic Organization to resign on Thursday. Host Noah Adams turns to James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic and an amateur pilot, for that story and others from the past week.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): With this budget, House Republicans are changing the culture in Washington from one of spending to one of savings.

President BARACK OBAMA: To restore fiscal responsibility, we all need to share in the sacrifice. But we don't have to sacrifice the America we believe in.

ADAMS: President Obama from this morning's radio and Internet address, responding to Eric Cantor and House Republicans, who passed their version of the 2012 federal budget yesterday.

James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us now, as he does most Saturdays.

Welcome, Jim.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, The Atlantic): Thank you very much, Noah. Nice to talk to you.

ADAMS: This is the Paul Ryan-penned budget that we've been parsing out over the last few weeks. Medicare and Medicaid get big makeovers, cuts to lots of programs that Democrats have said they will challenge, and the new health care law gets tossed over the side. What do you think, is it really just a starting point for what's going to be a big struggle?

Mr. FALLOWS: I think it certainly is that. And for all of the complaining that we all do in the media and in the public about the nature of American politics, you could actually find a bright side in the debate of the last week or two in that the two parties are presenting with admirable clarity differences in their views of government, the future of the economy, et cetera, especially given the fact that the House Republicans voted with just four exceptions for this bill, knowing that it cannot possibly become law since the Senate is controlled by the Democrats and President Obama is in the White House. And so, therefore, the fact they all voted for, especially these changes in Medicare and Medicaid, is quite striking and in a way good for clarity.

ADAMS: Now, the president's budget speech this past week seems to be establishing a battle position. There were harsh words for Republicans who were sitting right there in the front row. What do you think?

Mr. FALLOWS: What I thought was interesting about the speech, and in a way consistent with other prominent speeches the president has given, both in the White House and before that, is the way he actually advanced a case for his view of government.

He made number one the argument that government, far from being simply a parasite on the rest of the economy, had been important in building roads and a biotech establishment and aerospace and the Internet and all of that. And second, he made the case that the social safety net or even the welfare state, if you think of it in terms of Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, was actually an inseparable part of American greatness and progress.

So agree with that or disagree with it, he was making that case in a way that I had not heard him make it before.

ADAMS: Now, we have often turned to you for aviation matters. You write quite extensively about these things. We have news today of another air traffic controller allegedly - that's an important word - allegedly falling asleep on the job, this one's in Miami. And the head, as you know, the head of the Air Traffic Control Organization resigned on Thursday. What's going on at the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration?

Mr. FALLOWS: I think what's going on is an intersection of sort of human biology and budget pathology, if you will, where people are not really designed to work midnight to 8 a.m. shifts, especially when so many of them have to a day or two later work a daytime shift. And so when one person is on duty, it's often the case that they've fallen asleep. And we're starting to see more and more of this.

The budgetary fact is there's budget pressure on the FAA, as all the rest of the federal government. The latest proposal from the House is to reduce its budget by about 10 percent. So squaring the circle of having more people on duty at night with less money is going to be one of many challenges for government in the days ahead.

ADAMS: You're a flier yourself; your level of faith in the traffic control system is what?

Mr. FALLOWS: I think that the safest way one can travel in the United States is by commercial airliners. Also the case, and not well understood by the public, that even if all their controllers went home and had a beer, airplanes can still land themselves. And so there are dangers for sequencing planes into a landing and all that, but it's not like the plane is going to fall out of the sky as in the old movie "Airplane."

ADAMS: James Fallows is national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.

Jim, thanks so much.

Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure. Thank you.

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