Friday, March 25, 2011

FAA To Investigate Staffing Problems At Reagan Airport After Traffic Controller Falls Asleep

The nation's top aviation official says he has suspended a control tower supervisor while investigating why no controller was available to aid two planes that landed at Washington's Reagan airport early this week.

Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Randy Babbitt said Thursday in a statement that the controller has been suspended from his operational duties. He said he was "personally outraged" that the supervisor, the lone controller on duty in the airport tower at the time, failed to meet his duties.

The National Transportation and Safety Board said in a statement Thursday that the controller responsible has admitted to falling asleep on the job. He attributes his fatigue to working four consecutive night shifts.

An aviation official who spoke on condition of anonymity because an investigation is under way said the supervisor fell asleep.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is directing that two people be on duty overnight in the Reagan Washington National Airport control tower following the incident.

"It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space," LaHood said in a statement. "I have also asked FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] Administrator Randy Babbitt to study staffing levels at other airports around the country."

American Airlines flight 1012 was on final approach to the airport at 12:10 a.m. Wednesday and abandoned the descent when the tower was unresponsive, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. United Airlines flight 628T coming from Chicago faced the same experience fifteen minutes later.

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Peter Knudson said the pilots were able to communicate with a regional air traffic control facility in Virginia, about 40 miles from the airport. Both planes landed safely using “uncontrolled airport” procedures.

Safety officials said controllers at the regional facility were unable to reach anyone at the airport tower by phone.

An aviation official, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the single controller -- a supervisor -- was scheduled for duty in the tower at that time but had fallen asleep. The post-midnight shift in the control tower is reserved for supervisors.

The Federal Aviation Administration released a statement confirming the incident.

"The FAA is looking into staffing issues and whether existing procedures were followed appropriately," agency spokeswoman Laura Brown said in an email.

Rep. John Mica, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says the incident is a "serious concern."

“This incident and other recent performance failures, including near miss incidents, are matters of serious concern. I am asking Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Petri and the Committee’s investigative staff to conduct a thorough review of this and other recent mishaps," the Florida Republican said in a statement.

Mica also pledged that the committee would review the matter.

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