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Posted at 03:38 PM ET, 03/24/2011

Discovery execs land during airport tower bungle


Executives from Silver Spring, Md.-based Discovery Communications were on a flight that landed at National Airport with an unmanned traffic control tower. (Liveatc.net/washingtonpost.com)

Discovery Communications execs were among those aboard the flights that landed at National Airport very early Wednesday morning while the air traffic control tower was unmanned.

Eileen O’Neill, group president for Discovery Communications’ Discovery channel and TLC, and Clark Bunting, president of Discovery channel, were flying back to Washington from Chicago on United Airlines Airbus 320, after attending the company’s upfront presentation in Chicago, at which programming plans are discussed with ad execs.

O”Neill, who classifies herself one of the many who are uncomfortable with air travel, had no idea she’d been a player in yet another potential air-travel-gone-wrong documentary special during her Wednesday pre-dawn landing, until Thursday morning.

“I was just flying in and aggravated – we’d been waylaid due to weather, and I was anxious to get down. It had been a really long night, she tells the TV Column.

“I had a Google alert yesterday that there had been a couple of landings [at National] without the tower working and I was glad..it wasn’t me -- Phew!” she adds.

“And then, last night I saw the WashPo article on it, and I started to read it and realized the first part references a 12:10 a.m. flight and the second plane being a United flight that had landed 15 minutes later. So I emailed the article to my assistant and Clark and his assistant, and this morning I sent an email to our travel head and said ‘Could this possibly have been my flight?’ and she emailed back and said yes, it definitely was my flight.”

O’Neill, ironically, was involved with her Silver Spring-based company’s coverage of US Airways Flight 1549. That’s the flight that, back in January of ‘09, had to ditch into the Hudson about six minutes after taking off from LaGuardia airport, making a celebrity out of flight captain “Sully” Sullenberger.

O’Neill was president of TLC when the network greenlit “Brace for Impact” – a biopic documentary focusing on Sully, which it telecast in early 2010.

(Discovery Channel also telecast the one-hour documentary, “Hudson Plane Crash: What Really Happened” in March of ’09. Among the passengers on that flight was former Discovery honcho Billy Campbell).

Will Discovery or TLC fast-track a docu on the Washington airport tower mess? Guess what – they’d already been pitched at least one project about air traffic towers and air traffic controllers before this week’s incident had happened. “It’s enough to make me go and look for it,” in among the pitches, she confesses.

“I’m like the Kevin Bacon of flying -- but in a good way,” O’Neill insists, noting one of her relatives was recently on a plane that was on the ground in Japan when the earthquake struck, but got out of Japan safely.

And yet, we will make sure O’Neill is not on any flight we make in the near future.

And, the Federal Aviation Administration reports Thursday that the control tower supervisor who failed to respond to the two planes has been suspended while the incident is investigated.

By  |  03:38 PM ET, 03/24/2011

 
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