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Air Traffic Controller Asleep on Duty at Reagan National, NTSB Says

Air Traffic Controller Asleep on Duty at Reagan National, NTSB Says 


"An air traffic controller at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport fell asleep on duty early Wednesday morning, leaving the control tower silent and forcing pilots of two commercial planes to land on their own, the National Transportation Safety Board said today.

The controller, who had 20 years of experience, including 17 at Reagan National, was suspended earlier Thursday by the Federal Aviation Administration while its investigation proceeds.

The NTSB report, which does not name the controller, said he had been working his fourth consecutive overnight shift, which runs from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and that "human fatigue issues are one of the areas being investigated."

"I am determined to get to the bottom of this situation for the safety of the traveling public," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement announcing the controller's suspension.

"As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes," he said. "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."

Pilots of an American Airlines and United Airlines plane each said they had been in contact with regional air traffic controllers before being handed off to the Reagan National tower for approach and landing.

But as the planes radioed their requests to land in the nation's capital early Wednesday morning, all they heard was silence.

"American 1900, just so you're aware the tower is apparently not manned," a regional controller told the pilots of one plane, according to radio recordings obtained by ABC News. "So you can expect to go in as an uncontrolled airport."

The pilot executed an airport flyover -- routine aviation procedure -- before landing on his own without help from the ground.

Fifteen minutes later, United flight 628 from Chicago also was unable to contact the Reagan tower.

"The aircraft went in just as an uncontrolled airport," one regional controller said on the recording. "It's happened before though."

The United pilot also treated the airport as unmanned and landed safely.

Federal transportation officials are now conducting a comprehensive review air traffic controller staffing at airports across the country.

While Reagan National is staffed with multiple air traffic controllers during the day, the overnight shift is managed by just one controller because there are no departures overnight and few arrivals.

But midnight shifts at other major U.S. airports, including New York's John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia, Chicago O'Hare and Boston Logan, all have two controllers on duty.

Richmond, Va., and Andrews Air Force Base are two regional airports that only have one controller in the tower for the midnight shift.

"The reality is that we should probably never have just one controller at a major airport anytime, anywhere," said aviation expert John Nance. "But the fact that it's Washington, D.C., obviously accelerates the questions like this."

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood took the unusual step late Wednesday of immediately ordering a second air traffic controller at Reagan National Airport on the midnight shift.

"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 Administrator Randy Babbitt to study staffing levels at other airports around the country."

One veteran air traffic controller contacted by ABC News said the incident would not have presented a danger to passengers, because pilots are trained to land without air traffic control. But he added that it was highly unusual.

"It's a big deal when two aircraft at Washington National Airport are not able to contact the tower," said Dick Marakovitz, a controller for 27 years. "That's a big deal."

American Airlines Flight 1012, a Boeing 737, had 91 passengers and six crew members on board. United Airlines Flight 628, an Airbus A320, had 63 passengers and five crew members.

Reagan National Airport serves some 18 million passengers a year.

ABC News' Devin Dwyer contributed to this report."


There are several ongoing stories about this today in the news regarding this sure the story and investigation will be ongoing as well as evaluation etc

Just wondering what some folks think about this.


Der Meister

Its not that big of a deal IMO. You don't need a controller to land an airplane. They are mostly there for separation of aircraft both in the Air and on the Ground at larger airports. And the TRACON told the pilots to treat it as an uncontrolled airport so its not like they didnt know.  

  •  JOMA
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I live near this airport so this was a big deal around here. Personally I think the air traffic control people are treated poorly and there's a reason this guy was asleep but I do think there should be at least two people at all times if there are any plans landing.


I would agree that they need 2 people on duty, but i think there is a reason he had to do 4 overnight shifts...  thankfully no one was hurt :)

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Inspector wrote:

I would agree that they need 2 people on duty, but i think there is a reason he had to do 4 overnight shifts...  thankfully no one was hurt :)

I don't think an ATC falling asleep would cause that much damage in my opinion. The ATC's purpose is to manage the traffic on Airports (you know, which one has permission to take off, permission to land, which runway they can land on and which terminal they can dock on.)

A fun fact is that on the ground, airplanes are the same as cars. They both have to deal with traffic!

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OK so maybe watching a movie to pass the 'tedium' of the responsibility  for the safety of hundreds of lives might be a good idea to stay awake.

FAA suspends controller for watching movie on duty

By JOAN LOWY and RAY HENRY, Associated Press – Tue Apr 19, 7:04 am ET


"WASHINGTON – An air traffic controller has been suspended for watching a movie when he was supposed to be monitoring aircraft, deepening the Federal Aviation Administration's embarrassment following at least five cases of controllers sleeping on the job.

In the latest incident, the controller was watching a movie on a DVD player early Sunday morning while on duty at a regional radar center in Oberlin, Ohio, near Cleveland that handles high-altitude air traffic, the FAA said in a statement Monday.

The controller's microphone was inadvertently activated, transmitting the audio of the movie — the 2007 crime thriller "Cleaner," starring Samuel L. Jackson — for more than three minutes to all the planes in the airspace that the controller was supposed to be monitoring, the agency said.

The controller's microphone became stuck in the transmit position, preventing him from hearing incoming radio calls or issuing instructions to planes during the incident, the agency said.

The controller was alerted to the mishap when he was contacted by a military pilot.

Besides the controller, the FAA also has suspended a manager at the Oberlin center.

In all, the FAA has suspended nine controllers and supervisors since late March.

In five of the cases the controllers allegedly fell asleep. In another case, the FAA is investigating why two controllers in Lubbock, Texas, were unresponsive to radio calls.

Nearly all the incidents occurred during overnight shifts when traffic is light and people naturally have trouble staying awake.

The incidents have shaken FAA officials, made air traffic controllers the butt of late-night comedians and raised public jitters about the safety of air travel.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said early Monday, before the agency had disclosed the incident near Cleveland, that he was "infuriated" that air traffic controllers have been caught snoozing on the job.

"None of us in this business can ... tolerate any of this," Babbitt said. "It absolutely has to stop."

Babbitt was at a regional radar center near Atlanta with Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents controllers. The pair met with about 50 controllers and other FAA employees as they kicked off a nationwide tour of air traffic facilities aimed at sending a message as much to the public as to controllers that unprofessional behavior won't be tolerated.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood underscored the same message in a series of television interviews over the past several days. Even President Barack Obama joined the chorus, telling ABC News last week, "We've got it under control."

But every time administration officials say they've moved decisively to contain the problem, another controller steps over the line.

The day before the Cleveland incident a controller fell asleep while working an overnight shift at busy regional radar facility in Miami that handles high-altitude traffic for Florida, parts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean.

The incidents have raised concerns about work schedules that don't allow controllers realistic opportunities for sleep.

The FAA forbids controllers from sleeping on the job, even during the 20-minute to 30-minute breaks they receive every few hours. Babbitt stood by that position Monday.

Instead, the agency said it will require controllers to have an extra hour off between shifts — a minimum of nine hours instead of eight — to get more sleep.

Babbitt said at the meeting that the scandal caused by sleeping controllers has harmed the agency's credibility. He said passengers should never have to worry about whether a flight crew is rested, a plane is properly maintained or air traffic controllers are on the job.

"That should never be a thought for anybody getting in an airplane in this country," he said. "And it hasn't been a thought. But unfortunately, we have raised that concern."


Henry reported from Peachtree City, Ga.


You almost have to wonder if they allow microwaves and popcorn in the control center

And what about the health risks of butter and salt ? let alone how some mechanical control 'transmit mike' function becoming  stuck possibly due to sticky fingers? sticky keys?

or is this the grey area referred to as human error rather than the sheer stupidity to tolerate..that's what concerns me !

but then again, not sure if I did see the Cleaner with Samuel Jackson can't recall the film pretty sure it's less than 2 hours long so as  not to interfere with the break

but I did see Snakes on a Plane.


Definitely watching a movie is worse than falling asleep. It should be like any other job where you get a shift. Your shift is 7-11 etc. this way you don't have people working the night shift and then only having 6 hours between their shifts.


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Oh and another one :

Michelle Obama's plane in close call

Wed Apr 20, 9:37 am ET

"WASHINGTON (AFP) – Aviation authorities were investigating Wednesday why an official jet carrying US First Lady Michelle Obama came too close to a military plane and had to abort its landing near Washington.

The plane carrying Obama was ordered to execute a "go around" above Andrews Air Force Base on Monday, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). US media reported it was due to an air traffic controller's error.

Her aircraft was too close to a 200-ton military cargo jet and had to scrap its final approach to Andrews, a key hub for top US government officials including President Barack Obama.

"The FAA is investigating the incident," the agency said in a statement. "The aircraft were never in any danger."

CNN meanwhile reported that Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, also was on the aircraft. The two women had both traveled to New York Monday for an appearance on ABC's show "The View."
[ For complete coverage of politics and policy, go to Yahoo! Politics ]

The Washington Post and ABC television each cited anonymous federal officials who attributed the dangerous event to an error by an air traffic controller at a civilian radar control center in Warrenton, Virginia.

Controllers at Andrews worried that, as a result of the other air traffic official's mistake, the massive C-17 would not clear the runway at the facility swiftly enough for the first lady's Boeing 737 to land safely.

The Andrews controllers ordered Michelle Obama's flight -- bearing the EXEC1F designation as an aircraft carrying members of the president's family -- to execute a series of turns to put more distance between it and the cargo plane.

"FAA controllers at Andrews Air Force Base instructed an incoming Boeing 737 on approach to Runway 19 to perform a 'go around' on Monday, April 18, 2011 just after 5:00 pm because the plane did not have the required amount of separation behind a military C-17," the agency said in its statement.

"The Boeing 737 landed safely after executing the go around."

There are strict standards on how much distance controllers must maintain between planes, because an aircraft's wake causes severe turbulence.

The FAA requires five miles (eight kilometers) between a C-17 -- which has a maximum take-off weight of 265,350 kilograms (265.35 tons) and trails a long wake that causes dangerous turbulence -- and the next airplane.

The first lady's jet came within 3.08 miles (4.8 kilometers) of the C-17, the Post said.

US air traffic controllers have faced heavy scrutiny recently after a series of incidents in which some fell asleep while on duty, leading officials to announce a new "zero tolerance" approach for such activities.

Transportation officials monitoring some of the world's busiest air traffic have been red-faced as case after case of workers snoozing in US airport towers came to light, in some incidents leaving pilots of passenger jets to land unassisted in Washington.

The head of US air traffic control resigned last week and the FAA vowed a major shake-up to win back public trust in its safety."


***Ok more promises to do better along with the 'no-danger' yada-yada  will just have to suffice  once again..!

and what actually was the error ? seems  like a regularly recurring event lately.

Der Meister

^ I saw that one yesterday and the media has done a good job blowing the situation out of the water. This happens many times around the US and world daily. Its called a go around and it thought from day 1 in pilot school. They just as normal as a take off or a landing. 

There is no error other then the separation got to small for the two aircraft. So the controllers issued a go around to the other aircraft. The media just sensationalizes it to get you to read their stories. 

**rant off**



This stuff happens all the time. Working as an air traffic controller has to be an incredibly boring job, you sit around monitoring planes, keeping order...but your in a room doing nothing but staring at screens. horrrible

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Der Meister wrote:

^ I saw that one yesterday and the media has done a good job blowing the situation out of the water. This happens many times around the US and world daily. Its called a go around and it thought from day 1 in pilot school. They just as normal as a take off or a landing. 

There is no error other then the separation got to small for the two aircraft. So the controllers issued a go around to the other aircraft. The media just sensationalizes it to get you to read their stories. 

**rant off**

Hey Der Meister my money was on you being the first to hop in with the fly around ..and yep gotta agree with the News sensationalizing it & all

so as not to alarm everyone it is quite likely to have similar news stories daily.