Air traffic controller caught sleeping

Posted by Shazy on Thursday, March 24, 2011

Air traffic controller caught sleeping
Aviation experts on alert after tower supervisor dozes off
WASHINGTON — Aviation and safety experts are on alert after an air traffic control tower supervisor reportedly fell asleep at the switch early Wednesday at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., leaving two commercial jets to land without gaining clearance.

The controller, along with other Federal Aviation Administration officials at Reagan National, was interviewed by the National Transportation Safety Board, NBC News has learned. The controller — a 20-year-veteran, 17 of those years at Reagan — had been working his fourth consecutive overnight shift (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.)

“What’s really shocking about this is that they had only one person in that tower," aviation lawyer and safety expert Mike Pangia told NBC News. “It’s a human thing to be indisposed for one reason or another."

"I think they need to look into the supervisory staff and those people who are responsible for manning the tower in such an important area such as Reagan Airport, which is a stone’s throw away from the Pentagon, from the Capitol Building and everything else in Washington, D.C. … To have just one controller on duty, even when the traffic is light, is absurd," Pangia said.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt vowed "to get to the bottom of this situation."

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

The supervisor, who wasn't named, has been suspended from operational duties.

Two is better than one
On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood LaHood directed FAA to launch a nationwide study of airport tower staffing. He also directed that at least two controllers be on duty at night at Reagan, which is located just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., in northern Virginia.

"It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space," LaHood said.

The incident comes nearly five years after a fatal crash in Kentucky in which a controller was working alone. Accident investigators said that controller was most likely suffering from fatigue, although they placed responsibility for the crash that took 49 lives on the pilots.
The head of the union that represents air traffic controllers praised LaHood's actions, saying changes in staffing are needed.

"One-person shifts are unsafe. Period," Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in a statement Thursday. He said the union has long been concerned about single controller shifts, citing a 2006 air crash in Lexington, Ky., in which a Comair regional airliner attempted a takeoff at night from the wrong runway. A single air traffic controller was on duty in the airport tower at the time.

"The administration inherited an unsafe policy of staffing to budget instead of putting safety first," Rinaldi said. "We fully support the administration's aggressive actions to change this policy."

In this week's incident, the pilots of the two planes — American Airlines flight 1012, a Boeing 737 with 91 passengers and six crew members on board, and United Airlines flight 628T, an Airbus A320 with 63 passengers and five crew members — were unable to raise a controller at Reagan as they approached the airport.

They were, however, in contact with controllers at a regional FAA facility about 40 miles away in Warrenton, Va. Those controllers tried repeatedly to contact the tower by phone, but their calls went unanswered, said National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Peter Knudson.

The issue is likely to land in Congress' lap next week when the House is expected take up a Republican-drafted bill that would cut $4 billion over four years from the FAA. The agency says it needs more money, not less.

'We're not going to be able to land'
John Schriffen, a passenger on the American Airlines flight from Miami and a reporter for NBC affiliate WNRC in Washington, D.C., said that everything appeared to be going as planned as the flight approached Reagan National.

“All of a sudden, we started pulling back up and the engine starts kicking back into gear. A few minutes after that, the pilot gets over the loudspeaker and says, ‘I’m sorry folks, we’re not going to be able to land. We can’t get any contact with anyone at air traffic control. We’re going to have to circle the airport until we can get a response from them.' ”

Schriffen said the plane circled the airport for 10 or 15 minutes and then landed.

“The pilot never came out and made another announcement, the flight attendants didn’t say anything — we were escorted off the plane, and that was it," he said.

For many years, air traffic at Reagan was severely restricted between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. to limit noise in surrounding communities, noted Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, an industry-funded group that promotes aviation safety. Today there is more air traffic at night because jets are quieter, but there are still so few landings after midnight that it may be reasonable to have only one controller on duty, he said.
"It's not outrageous for the agency to avoid putting a second six-figure employee into a tower where they may only work a dozen airplanes in a shift," said Voss, a former air traffic controller.

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.

Fatigue factor
There was probably little safety risk in Washington since the pilots would have used a radio frequency for the airport tower to advise nearby aircraft of their intention to land and to make sure that no other planes also intended to land at that time, aviation safety experts said. At that time of night, air traffic would have been light, they said.

Also, controllers at the regional facility, using radar, would have been able to advise the pilots of other nearby planes, experts said.

The primary risk would have been if there was equipment on the runway when the planes landed, they said.

But the incident raises serious questions about controller fatigue, a longstanding safety concern, said John Goglia, a former NTSB board member.

Goglia said shifts must be scheduled to ensure controllers can get enough rest.

"It's worse when nothing is going on," he said. "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."

Pangia, the aviation lawyer, agrees.

“The job at National, because of the low traffic, becomes very, very fatiguing … because there is no activity … and human beings, being what we are, can be indisposed for one reason or another, and that’s why it’s so important to have another person on.

“Planes can be flown with one pilot, but we have two pilots onboard because we’re human beings."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Source: Msnbc