FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt suspended the veteran controller supervisor on Thursday, saying he was “personally outraged” after two planes carrying a total of 165 people landed without help from the control tower.
The National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday initiated a formal investigation into the incident, and the House Transportation Committee planned to conduct a formal review.
“This incident and other recent performance failures, including near-miss incidents, are matters of serious concern,” said Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the committee’s chairman. “I am asking . . . the committee’s investigative staff to conduct a thorough review of this and other recent mishaps.”
Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (W.Va.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, endorsed the probe, adding that “if wrongdoing is discovered, appropriate action must be taken immediately.”
The NTSB said the controller supervisor told investigators in an interview Thursday that he was working his fourth consecutive overnight shift and had fallen asleep. A controller since 1990, he was called in to be drug-tested at National about 12 hours after the incident, federal officials said.
“They rarely drug-test unless it’s an accident,” said an FAA official familiar with the incident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the agency.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered a second air traffic controller to be on duty overnight at National and instructed the FAA to examine staffing levels at airports across the country. Most major airports that operate 24 hours a day have two controllers in the tower for the midnight-to-6 a.m. shift., according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Dulles International Airport has two, as do the major airports in New York, Newark and Boston. Chicago’s O’Hare International has three. The number on duty at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport was not immediately available.
The issue of tower staffing arose five years ago, when Comair Flight 191 turned onto the wrong runway at a Lexington, Ky., airport. The runway was too short, and the plane crashed on takeoff, killing 47 passengers and two of the three crew members.
Investigators determined that there was only one controller in the tower, a violation of that airport’s policy.
Until LaHood ordered otherwise late Wednesday, the National tower had been staffed by one air traffic controller from midnight to 6 a.m. As planes approached to land early Wednesday, the on-duty controller did not respond to pilots’ requests for landing assistance or to phone calls from controllers elsewhere in the region, who also used a “shout line,” which pipes into a loudspeaker in the tower, internal records show.