FAA Suspends Sleeping Supervisor: Is Air Traffic Control Out of Control?

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John Amis / AP

Falling asleep on the job? Drug tests? What is going on in those towers?

That’s what the Federal Aviation Administration certainly wants to know. They’ve been conducting an investigation into the air traffic supervisor who reportedly fell asleep on the job at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, forcing two planes to land without assistance from the tower. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told the Associated Press that, “As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes.”

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The Washington Post reported Thursday that the supervisor — who has been suspended — has also been drug tested, though the FAA wouldn’t confirm or deny the testing.

The supervisor was on duty alone that night and the National Transportation Safety Board has said that the supervisor told investigators that he was working his fourth consecutive overnight shift, was on duty alone and had fallen asleep.

Apparently, working alone on night shifts isn’t uncommon for air traffic controllers. Gail Zlotky, the ATC-CTI program director at Middle Tennessee State University, told NewsFeed in an email that “at many airports the midnight shift has minimal traffic and there is only one air traffic controller on duty.”  She also adds that pilots always have access to other air traffic towers, as was the case at Reagan National. The two planes that landed on Wednesday contacted a nearby tower in Warrenton, Va. after they were unable to get through to the supervisor at National.

However, not everyone is satisfied that the current procedure is adequate. “One-person shifts are unsafe. Period,” Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in a statement issued after the incident. “The administration inherited an unsafe policy of staffing to budget instead of putting safety first.” 

In light of the event, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered that there be two controllers on shift at National and that the FAA look at other airports across the country. NewsFeed thinks this might not be such a bad idea.

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