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Posted at 10:35 PM ET, 04/18/2011

Cleveland air traffic controller, manager suspended

[This post has been updated, 11:12 p.m.]

A Cleveland air traffic controller and a manager were suspended by the Federal Aviation Administration this week after a movie soundtrack was heard playing over a radio frequency by the pilot of a military aircraft, the FAA said Monday night.

Here is the FAA’s statement:

“During the early morning hours of April 17, 2011, an air traffic controller at the Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center was watching a movie on a portable electronic device while working a radar position. For a little more than three minutes, the controller’s microphone was inadvertently activated, transmitting the soundtrack of the movie over the radio frequency for that airspace. The problem was brought to air traffic control’s attention by the pilot of a military aircraft using an alternate frequency. The controller and the front line manager have been suspended from operational duties pending an investigation. FAA policy prohibits the use of portable DVD players and other devices from being used on the floor of the radar room.”

This incident occurred on the same day that FAA officials were releasing new rules on air traffic controller scheduling designed to give personnel more time to rest between shifts. On Saturday a Miami controller was suspended for allegedly falling asleep while on duty with other controllers. It was the seventh time this year a controller had been suspended for sleeping while on duty.

On Sunday Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had appeared on “Fox News Sunday” emphasizing the importance he places on safety and to assure the flying public that officials were acting quickly to alleviate concerns about controller fatigue.

“I’m really mad about it,” LaHood said on the program. “We’re going to work 24/7 to make sure these controllers are well trained and alert.”

One of the most popular schedules is known as the 2-2-1. Under it, a controller begins the workweek with two evening shifts, does a quick turnaround to a pair of day shifts and then does another quick turn before an overnight shift.

Those quick turnarounds — usually just eight hours — have been blamed for controller fatigue, but the 2-2-1 is favored by many controllers because it compacts their workweek and creates a weekend of at least three days.

Under the new guidelines, which took effect over the weekend, air traffic controllers are guaranteed a minimum of nine hours off between shifts, an increase of an hour over the previous policy.

The changes also include a ban on trading shifts with other controllers unless the minimum between shifts is met; prohibited swapping of regular days off in some circumstances; and an extension of the hours a manager is on duty until 1 a.m.

“We expect controllers to come to work rested and ready to work and take personal responsibility for safety in the control towers,” LaHood said Sunday. “We have zero tolerance for sleeping on the job.”

On Monday FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt and Paul Rinaldi, president of the air traffic controllers union, began visiting air traffic control centers to talk with controllers about the recent problems and expected standards of conduct. Their tour began in Atlanta and is scheduled to include Washington-area facilities this week.

On Wednesday Hank Krakowski, the head of the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Organization, was forced to resign after recent reports of sleeping controllers and a year in which recorded errors by controllers — some of them leading to near mid-air collisions — increased 51 percent.

The incidents have drawn increasing scrutiny from Capitol Hill and the National Transportation Safety Board, which has advocated for changes in controller scheduling due to concerns about fatigue.

By Washington Post Editors  |  10:35 PM ET, 04/18/2011

 
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