A Nevada air traffic controller allegedly fell asleep early Wednesday as a medical flight carrying a sick patient tried to land, leading federal authorities to order an immediate end to the practice of leaving one controller on duty during overnight shifts.
The plane landed safely at Reno-Tahoe International Airport with the help of a radar controller based in California, the Federal Aviation Administration said. The Reno controller was suspended, and the FAA is investigating why there were 16 minutes of silence as the medical flight sought to land.
The head of the Federal Aviation Administration says the agency's top official overseeing the nation's air traffic system has resigned following disclosures of controllers falling asleep on the job. (April 14)
The Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday it suspended an air traffic controller for falling asleep at work and being out of communication for 16 minutes, forcing a medical flight to land overnight without local support. (April 13)
The air traffic control system has come under scrutiny by the National Transportation Safety Board and Congress after a year in which the number of operational errors recorded by controllers increased by 51 percent. Those errors were failures to keep aircraft at a safe distance while in flight.
The incident Wednesday was the fifth time this year that a controller apparently slept while on duty.
A controller supervisor was suspended last month after he admitted to napping in the tower at Reagan National Airport. The FAA has taken steps to fire a Knoxville radar controller who allegedly used a makeshift bed to sleep while on duty in February.
A Seattle tower controller working with two colleagues Monday was suspended after he fell asleep, the FAA said. According to federal officials, it was the third time the controller had slept on the job.
Two Texas controllers working the midnight shift last month were suspended after they failed to properly hand off a flight departing from Lubbock to radar controllers in Fort Worth, the FAA said. A Fort Worth controller also received no response when he tried to hand off an inbound flight to the Lubbock tower.
It is routine for controllers to work a compressed workweek that includes two evening shifts, a quick turnaround to a pair of day shifts and another quick turnaround to a midnight shift, all separated by eight- to 10-hour intervals. That allows them a three- to four-day weekend.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who ordered a nationwide review of controller staffing after the incident at Reagan National, responded to the latest event by ordering a second overnight controller into the 27 towers that still have one controller on duty on those shifts.
“I am totally outraged by these incidents,” LaHood said in a statement. “This is absolutely unacceptable.”
FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt said he would take top FAA officials and leaders of the controllers union on a tour of the nation’s air traffic control facilities next week to “reinforce the need for all air traffic personnel to adhere to the highest professional standards.”
“Air traffic controllers are responsible for making sure aircraft safely reach their destinations,” Babbitt said. “We absolutely cannot and will not tolerate sleeping on the job. This type of unprofessional behavior does not meet our high safety standards.”
U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), who chairs the Senate transportation committee, said he contacted Babbitt on Wednesday.