Acting manager at Warrenton air traffic center reassigned

The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday reassigned the acting manager of the air traffic control facility that was responsible for a mistake that required an airplane carrying Michelle Obama to abort its landing at Andrews Air Force Base last week.

Roderick Harrison returned to his job as assistant manager at the center that controls the skies over the Washington region.

His place will be taken by the official who ran the Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility in Warrenton from its opening in 2003 until she departed for FAA headquarters on a temporary assignment.

Barbara Cogliandro, who has been described as an “iron-fisted manager,” was seen to be on a path to retirement after more than 30 years with the FAA when she transferred to headquarters.

“There was never any question that she was going to be coming back,” said an FAA spokeswoman. The agency said it is working to ensure that permanent managers are in charge of critical air traffic facilities.

A preliminary FAA report on the incident, which also is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, said the Warrenton supervisors were occupied and unaware that a problem was developing.

The incident occurred April 18 as the first lady and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, were returning aboard a military Boeing 737 from appearances in New York. The Warrenton controller allowed the 737 to get too close behind a C-17 military cargo jet that was maneuvering to land just ahead of it.

The Andrews controllers recognized that a mistake was being made and issued orders to the pilot to execute S-turns to increase the distance, which were unsuccessful. So the 737 was ordered to abandon its landing and circle the air base. The Obama plane landed without incident.

The FAA report said the Warrenton TRACON managers “were involved in other duties and were not aware of the event as it was happening.”

Since the incident, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has issued a directive that the same care be taken with planes carrying the vice president and first lady that is taken with aircraft carrying the president. In all cases, a supervisor will be required to oversee the work of controllers handling the aircraft.

Babbitt, speaking to an aviation industry group Wednesday, said decisive steps were being taken in addressing recent events when controllers were caught sleeping on the job and when controllers have made errors while planes were in the air.

Controllers caught sleeping in Miami, Knoxville, Tenn., and Seattle have been fired, and several other cases are under review.

Babbitt joked about being named as the official who had “the worst week in Washington” on Sunday in The Washington Post’s Outlook section.

“I’ve had the worst three weeks in Washington,” he said.

Under Harrison’s leadership, the Potomac TRACON controllers last year recorded 52 errors, an increase from 21 in 2009. This year, the facility has recorded 13 errors.

In an internal memo to his controllers last year, Harrison said veteran controllers were teaching inapproriate shortcuts to new hires, so “our newer controllers are developing the bad habits of some of our older . . . controllers.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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