Wings Magazine

Air traffic controller suspended for falling asleep

April 14, 2011, Reno, Nv. - 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 14, 2011  By The Associated Press

The suspension is the second this month for the FAA, which has investigated at least five lapses this year in airports around the country — four involving controllers falling asleep on the job. The FAA announced Wednesday it was immediately putting a second controller on the midnight shift at 27 airports around the country that currently use one controller overnight.

"I am totally outraged by these incidents. This is absolutely unacceptable,'' Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a
statement. "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.''

No one was injured when the flight carrying at least three people landed at Reno-Tahoe International Airport about 2 a.m. Wednesday. The FAA said the flight's pilot was in contact with regional radar controllers in northern California during the landing.

The pilot and airport staff tried to contact the controller multiple times without success, airport chief Krys Bart said.


"The flying public needs an assurance from the FAA that this situation will be addressed at all airports,'' Bart said. "We must
have adequate staffing.''

Last month, two jetliners landed at Washington's Reagan National Airport without tower assistance after the lone air traffic
supervisor fell asleep.

A follow-up investigation by the FAA uncovered a second incident of an air traffic controller sleeping on the job in February during the midnight shift at McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tenn.

The FAA said Wednesday that a controller in Seattle had been suspended for falling asleep during a morning shift on Monday. The controller already faced punishment for falling asleep on two other occasions during an evening shift in January, the FAA said.

The agency says two controllers in Lubbock, Texas were suspended after two failed handoffs two weeks ago.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered an examination of controller staffing at airports across the nation, and he directed that two controllers staff the midnight shift in Washington.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has added yet another investigation. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said the board has no plans to investigate the Reno incident.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement that the incident is unacceptable.

"My office has contacted the Federal Aviation Administration to make it clear that this situation is completely unacceptable and to request that there be a minimum of two air traffic control personnel in the tower at all times,'' Reid said.

The Piper Cheyenne plane involved in the Nevada incident is a twin engine turboprop with seating for five.

"The pilot evaluated the airfield. The weather was clear. The aircraft did land without incident,'' she said.

It was not immediately clear where the flight was coming from.

Bart said the airport, which serves the Reno, Carson City and Lake Tahoe areas, opened a new air traffic control tower in October 2010.

She said the airport has three runways, including two with modern instrument landing and lighting systems.

The incidents come nearly five years after a fatal crash in Kentucky in which a controller was working alone. Investigators said the controller in Kentucky was most likely suffering from fatigue, although they placed responsibility for the crash that took 49 lives on the pilots.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has warned against putting controllers alone on shifts and assigning tiring
work schedules.

At most airport towers, there's no bathroom in the cab — the room on the top of the tower. With only one controller on duty, the position has to go unattended at times if the controller needs to use a bathroom. It's common for the nearest bathroom to be located down a flight of stairs from the cab.


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