Babbitt said he would order radar controllers who guide planes as they descend from cruising altitude to confirm that controllers in airport towers are prepared to handle incoming flights before handing them off.
Under current procedures, those controllers turn planes toward their final approach and then tell pilots to contact the tower for guidance onto the runway.
Babbitt also said he would instruct controllers to offer the pilots an option to land elsewhere if a control tower is unresponsive for any reason.
Also on Friday, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association urged that staffing be doubled at other airports that have one person in the tower during overnight shifts. The controllers union said those include San Diego; Sacramento; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Tucson; Orlando; Reno, Nev.; and Burlington, Vt.
“We believe one-person mid[night] shifts, and one-person shifts anytime, are unsafe,” said Doug Church, a union spokesman. “We must have two. Some large airports currently have more than that. . . . [Chicago’s] O’Hare has three on its mid shift, plus a supervisor makes four total personnel.”
Most major airports that operate 24 hours a day have two controllers in the tower for the midnight-to-6 a.m. shift., Church said. Dulles International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport have two, as do the major airports in New York, Newark and Boston.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood immediately ordered a second controller into the National tower for the midnight to 6 a.m. shift after Wednesday’s incident.
When pilots were unable to contact the National tower just after midnight Wednesday, they conferred with a controller at the Potomac Terminal Radar (TRACON) facility, who advised them that the tower appeared to be unmanned. He informed them that if they opted to land there, they should use procedures appropriate for an “uncontrolled” airport.
Controllers have been operating under a directive issued in 1999 by Jeff Griffith, then the FAA program director for air traffic operations.
Griffith wrote that controllers have no legal basis for withholding landing clearance because a tower isn’t functioning but must “inform the pilot of any abnormal conditions.”
On Thursday, Babbitt suspended the veteran supervisor who fell asleep, saying he was “personally outraged” after the two planes, carrying a total of 165 people, landed without help from the control tower.