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Air traffic controller suspended for sleeping on the job

A controller at Reagan National Airport with 20 years of experience fell asleep during an overnight shift, forcing two planes to land without assistance.

March 25, 2011|By Julie Mianecki, Washington Bureau
  • A passenger jet passes the FAA control tower at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport.
A passenger jet passes the FAA control tower at Washington's Ronald… (Cliff Owen, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — An air traffic controller was suspended Thursday after he fell asleep during an overnight shift earlier this week, forcing two planes to land without assistance from Reagan National Airport's control tower.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the controller, who had 20 years' experience, was working his fourth consecutive overnight shift, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

"As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes," said J. Randolph Babbitt, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. "Fortunately, at no point was either plane out of radar contact, and our backup system kicked in to ensure the safe landing of both airplanes."

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday ordered that Reagan National Airport have two air traffic controllers in the tower during the overnight shift.

Babbitt said the FAA was investigating the incident and would look into staffing issues and whether proper procedure was followed.

Two planes, one an American Airlines flight and the other a United Airlines flight, approached the airport one after the other early Wednesday and were unable to contact the control tower, which had made its last transmission at 11:55 p.m. Tuesday, the NTSB said.

The American Airlines pilot reported the incident to a regional air traffic control center in Virginia and circled the airport. The controller told the pilot that the tower was apparently empty and advised him to treat it like an uncontrolled airport. The plane then landed safely.

The United Airlines flight approached about 10 minutes later and also landed safely without contact with the Reagan control tower.

A recording has the controller at the regional center warning the pilot of a third plane that the tower was unmanned.

"Called a couple of times on the landline and tried to call on the commercial line and no answer," the controller said. "You can expect to go into an uncontrolled airport."

Apparently responding to a question of why the tower was vacant, the controller replied: "I'm going to take a guess and say that the controller got locked out. I've heard of this happening before.... I'm not sure that's what happened now, but anyways, there's nobody in the tower."

The controller eventually told the pilot that the tower was "back in business" and the plane landed safely.

In an incident last year at Reagan National Airport, an air traffic controller got locked out of the tower and couldn't get back in because he was the only employee on the overnight shift.

Aviation safety expert Capt. Tom Kreamer said late-night flights received by only one air traffic controller were common, especially at city airports such as Reagan National where nighttime traffic is low because of noise restrictions and security concerns. But he said two controllers should be required at all times.

"We've known this was going to happen; it's happened in the past," Kreamer said. "One person is not enough, and I think you can see that now."

Retired American Airlines pilot and aviation expert Mark Weiss said that pilots trained for these types of situations and that some airports were always unmanned, but not large metropolitan airports such as Reagan National. At airports such as John F. Kennedy International Airport or Miami International Airport, Weiss said, there are more controllers at night because the traffic volume is much higher.

Weiss said the pilots in this case did everything right and the backup plan worked, but that landing at an uncontrolled airport can still be dangerous.

"The worst-case scenario is you're being hung out to dry," Weiss said. "You land and you hit something — you hit another airplane, you hit a vehicle, you hit debris on the runway.

"You don't know who's on the ground."

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