Air Traffic Controller Suspended

The Federal Aviation Administration Thursday suspended an air traffic control supervisor who failed to respond when two approaching passenger jets sought his help. The planes were coming into Washington's Reagan National Airport early Wednesday. The pilots were seeking clearance to land, but the FAA supervisor working the overnight shift was silent.

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The Federal Aviation Administration today suspended an air traffic control supervisor who failed to respond when two approaching passenger jets sought his help. Safety officials now say he admits he was sleeping. The planes were coming into Washington's Reagan National Airport around midnight on Tuesday. The pilots were seeking clearance to land, but the FAA supervisor working the overnight shift was silent.

NPR's Zoe Chace reports that staffing at airport control towers is now under scrutiny.

ZOE CHACE: If you are a pilot, this is probably the last thing you want to hear in the middle of the night, flying into a major city.

Unidentified Man #1: American 1900, so you're aware, the tower is apparently not manned. We've made a few phone calls. Nobody is answering.

CHACE: Nobody is at the control tower in D.C.'s Reagan National Airport. The pilot is cool. Even when the nearby regional control center says something pretty unbelievable.

Unidentified Man #1: I've heard of this happening before.

Unidentified Man #2: That's the first time I've heard it.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah. Fortunately, it's not very often, but, yeah, it happened about a year ago. But I'm not sure that's what happened now. But, anyway, there's nobody in the tower.

CHACE: Here's how it's supposed to work: Planes are passed from one regional controller to another like a baton until about 10 or 15 miles out from the airport. That's the homestretch where they talk to a controller who's got his eye on the actual runway.

Mike Miller is a former pilot who's with the American Aviation Institute. He says in this case...

Mr. MIKE MILLER (Vice President, Strategy, American Aviation Institute): You do what's called self-announce.

CHACE: This is something pilots do every day when they're flying small planes into small airports, and it's what the two pilots did who flew into Washington without an air traffic controller.

Mr. MILLER: You announce who you are, what type of plane you're flying, and that you're flying into a specific runway, and you're going to land. And then you announce that 1 mile out, half a mile out, you know, as many times as possible so that the surrounding traffic on that same frequency hears you.

CHACE: Reagan National has a curfew, meaning there are few late-night flights. So Miller says it's actually not that unusual to have only one controller in the tower at that airport.

Mr. MILLER: It's the middle of the night. You're generally having one controller doing everything because there's virtually no planes landing.

CHACE: The head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Randy Babbitt, has opened an investigation.

Mr. RANDY BABBITT (Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration): This is critical airspace - its proximity to the nation's capital, the Capitol itself, the White House. This shouldn't have happened.

CHACE: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has installed two controllers at Reagan National at all times starting yesterday. He's also looking into staffing at control towers at all national airports. That's not enough, says aviation consultant Mike Boyd, who's followed the industry for years.

Mr. MIKE BOYD (Aviation Consultant): Remember, we have an incident a few years ago where an airplane in Lexington, Kentucky, took off on the wrong runway, and there's supposed to be two controllers there. There was none.

CHACE: Forty-nine people died in that accident when the plane went off the runway. The air traffic controllers' union has also issued a statement calling one-person staffing wrong.

And the airplane passengers, usually, they worry about the pilot sleeping, not the air traffic controllers. But at Reagan National Airport, Eileen Shuman(ph) just arrived from Kentucky. She's never felt safer.

Ms. EILEEN SHUMAN: Well, at least, it happened yesterday, so people will be on high alert today, at least. Somebody is bound to be paying attention while we're flying in today.

CHACE: At least two people, right?

Zoe Chace, NPR News, Washington.

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