An air traffic controller  in Nevada 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 a single controller on duty during overnight shifts.

“Air traffic controllers are responsible for making sure aircraft safely reach their destinations. We absolutely cannot and will not tolerate sleeping on the job. This type of unprofessional behavior does not meet our high safety standards,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. 

The FAA said it will place an additional controller on the midnight shift at 27 towers around the country where only one person is currently assigned for that time slot.

The news follows several recent reports of controllers sleeping on the job, including a controller supervisor at Reagan National who allegedly dozed while two planes landed last month.

A Feb. 19 incident in Tennessee came to light this month when Babbitt testified before a House transportation subcommittee.

Babbitt suspended the National controller, and the FAA said it was in the process of firing the controller at Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport.

Wednesday the FAA revealed other instances:

• A controller at Reno-Tahoe International alledgely fell asleep Wednesday morning while a medical flight with a patient attempted to land.

• A controller at Boeing Field/King County International Airport in Seattle has been suspended for allegedly falling asleep Monday morning.

• Two controllers at Preston Smith International Airport in Lubbock, Texas, have been suspended for an incident that occurred March 29, where the FAA says they failed to hand off an aircraft to another control center. Officials said it took repeated attempts to reach the Lubbock controllers.

“I am totally outraged by these incidents. This is absolutely unacceptable," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “The American public trusts us to run a safe system. Safety is our number one priority and I am committed to working 24/7 until these problems are corrected.”

Not all of the nation’s airports served by commercial aircraft are staffed with controllers 24 hours a day. Experienced pilots land at what are called “uncontrolled” airports with some regularity.

There is a risk posed by a critical difference between an uncontrolled airport and one where the tower or radar controller falls asleep or becomes ill on the job. When an airport is uncontrolled, the incoming and departing pilots are on the same radio frequency as the ground crews who conduct runway and aircraft maintenance through the night.

But when controllers are on duty, ground crews and pilots work on different radio frequencies, each getting guidance from the tower controller. When that tower controller falls silent, there is a risk of collision because pilots may be unaware of equipment or airplanes on the tarmac, and ground crews may not be alerted of approaching planes.

From the archives:

Tennessee controller made bed for naps

FAA: More napping on the job

Control tower supervisor suspended at Reagan National

Errors by air traffic controllers set record