Air traffic controller accused of sleeping is suspended from Reagan National (AUDIO)
Updated: March 24, 2011 - 10:45 pm
Federal aviation officials are reviewing air traffic controller staffing at airports around the country after two airliners landed at Reagan National Airport without clearance from the airport tower because they were unable to raise anyone there.
Authorities said the air traffic supervisor - the lone controller on duty around midnight on Tuesday when the incident occurred - had admitted to falling asleep.
The air traffic controller who fell asleep has been suspended from all operational duties. The controller has 20 years experience and 17 of those are at Reagan.
“As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes,” said Federal Aviation Administration administrator Randy Babbitt. “Fortunately, at no point was either plane out of radar contact and our back-up system kicked in to ensure the safe landing of both airplanes.”
The controller first claimed that his microphone stuck, according to the Washington Post.
The pilots of the two planes were in contact with controllers at a regional Federal Aviation Administration facility about 40 miles away in Warrenton, Va., Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said Wednesday.
After pilots were unable to raise the airport tower by radio, they asked controllers in Warrenton to call the tower, Knudson said. Repeated calls from the regional facility to the tower went unanswered, he said.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, responding to the incident, said in a statement that he has directed FAA to put two air traffic controllers on the midnight shift at Reagan National.
"It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space," LaHood said. Reagan National is located in Northern Virginia just across the Potomac River from Washington.
LaHood also said he has directed Babbitt to study tower staffing at other airports around the country.
An air traffic controller source at Potomac TRACON in Warrenton, Va., said NTSB investigators have been at their facility since Wednesday and will remain through tomorrow conducting interviews about what happened early Wednesday morning.
The source said a supervisor and the controller who worked the two planes were drug tested by the NTSB Wednesday.
Potomac TRACON is a regional air traffic control facility that takes control of all aircraft in the D.C. region -- from BWI to Richmond.
NTSB investigators have been at their facility since Wednesday and will remain through Friday conducting interviews about what happened early Wednesday morning.
American Airlines Spokesperson Ed Martelle said all of their pilots have procedures regarding unattended towers. This happens occasionally, he says, though usually at small airports.
If pilots can't reach anyone at a tower, they are to contact someone at a regional facility. That happened on Wednesday.
Upon landing they are to then reach out to the unattended tower again for terminal permission. If they again can't reach anyone, they are to cautiously make their way to the terminal.
The American Airlines pilots in this case didn't think enough of this incident to report it to the dispatch at the airline. That is left to the Captain's discretion.
"This is an important airport and with all the security on the ground you'd think there'd be a little more security in the air,” said traveler Bo Walker of Winston-Salem North Carolina today at Regan National Airport:
Louisville bound passenger Wendy Monsen says she's fearful about flying back in to Reagan National on Sunday.
"I don't fly that much anyway but I have to from time to time and this is just not a day for me to want to get on a plane,” she said.
Regional air traffic facilities handle aircraft within roughly a 50 mile radius of an airport, but landings, takeoffs and planes within about three miles of an airport are handled by controllers in the airport tower.
The planes involved were American Airlines flight 1012, a Boeing 737 with 91 passengers and 6 crew members on board, and United Airlines flight 628T, an Airbus A320 with 63 passengers and five crew members.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency "is looking into staffing issues and whether existing procedures were followed appropriately."
The incident raises serious questions about controller fatigue, a longstanding safety concern, said John Goglia, a former NTSB board member.
"You have to watch your schedules to make sure (controllers) have adequate rest," Goglia said. "It's worse when nothing is going on. When it's busy, you have to stay engaged. When it's quiet, all they have to be is a little bit tired and they'll fall asleep."
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