published Saturday, March 26th, 2011

Was air traffic controller asleep?

It is amazing that our country daily has thousands of commercial airliners and thousands more private aircraft taking off, flying great distances and landing — with rare mishaps.

A big reason for that good record is that we have sophisticated flight rules and an air traffic control system to keep track of flights and avoid accidents.

It was shocking, therefore, when two passenger airliners approached Washington’s Reagan National Airport early Wednesday morning — and the airliners’ pilots got no response from the control tower!

What happened?

It has been reported that there are 31 airports in the country that operate overnight — between midnight and 5 a.m. — with only a single air traffic controller on duty. Alarmingly, the controller in this case has acknowledged he was asleep. Fortunately, no accident resulted. The planes that approached the airport and got no response avoided the planned landings, circled, then made contact with a regional traffic control center at Warrenton, Va., 50 miles away. By that time, it could be determined that no other aircraft were in the area, and they were able to land.

“The [Federal Aviation Administration] is thoroughly investigating Wednesday’s early morning incidents at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s control tower,” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said. “While that is taking place, we have suspended the air traffic controller from all operational duties. As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he has ordered the FAA to study staffing levels at airports, and has ordered that a second controller be on duty overnight at the Washington airport in question.

But the incident has raised an obvious question: Shouldn’t two air traffic controllers usually be in a tower to avoid such a situation? Even if a lone controller behaves responsibly, might he not have a heart attack or otherwise become incapacitated?

We may be sure many procedures will be reconsidered. They should be.

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