Air traffic controllers working alone cause concern

By Julie Johnsson
Posted March 24 at 3:34 p.m.

Fatigued from working his fourth straight night-shift, an control tower supervisor nodded off on the job early Wednesday morning, leaving Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport without anybody to monitor traffic for nearly half an hour.

As details of the incident emerged Thursday, federal officials suspended the controller and debate heated up over staffing of the lonely, late-night shifts when air traffic dwindles to a trickle.

Pilots on a United Airlines Airbus A320 jet arriving from Chicago and an American Airlines Boeing 737-800 inbound from Miami tried repeatedly to establish contact with the Reagan tower between 12:04 a.m. and 12:28 a.m., eastern daylight time, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report Thursday.

The airliners eventually were guided to safe landings at the airport by controllers working 40 miles away in the Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control center in suburban Virginia, who tried unsuccessfully to reach the tower via telephone.

Federal investigators were also examining the effect of fatigue on the controller, a veteran Federal Aviation Administration supervisor with 20 years experience, 17 of them at Reagan. He told NTSB investigators that he had fallen asleep while on duty while working his fourth consecutive 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift at the airport.

“I am determined to get to the bottom of this situation for the safety of the traveling public,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt in a statement Thursday. “As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes.”

Neither United Airlines flight 628 nor American Airlines flight 1012 was ever in any danger during Wednesday incident, federal officials said. Still, the incident stirred debate over staffing of control towers after over-worked or distracted controllers have been linked to a rash of safety incidents.

The NTSB in a safety recommendation Monday urged the FAA to bar controllers from supervisory duties while performing air traffic duties. A Chicago Tribune report early in March detailed an increase in errors at O’Hare International Airport as veteran controllers trained new hires.

Wednesday’s incident renews attention on airport towers manned by a single controller, susceptible to distractions or drowsiness. Such staffing situations have been linked to at least two fatal accidents in the last 15 years.

Two small aircraft collided over Lake Michigan in 1997, killing five people, after the sole controller in Meigs Field’s tower was distracted by an emergency involving a third plane. In 2006, 49 people died when a Comair flight crashed in Lexington, Ky., after the single controller on duty failed to notice that the commuter jet was taking off from a shortened runway.

“One-person shifts are unsafe. Period,” said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, in a statement advocating the need to safe staffing of front-line, fully certified air traffic controllers on all shifts.

In response to the Reagan communications lapse, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asked Babbitt to study staffing levels at control towers around the country and directed the FAA to place a second controller on the job during the early morning hours at Reagan, which lies on the Potomac River close to the heart of downtown Washington, D.C.


Safety and industry officials said it is extremely rare for a big-city airport like Reagan to operate with a single controller during the mid shift, spanning 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., when air traffic is light.

Neither of Chicago’s major airports is ever manned by a sole controller, said Elizabeth Isham Cory, an FAA spokeswoman.

In O’Hare’s tower, three fully-trained and certified front-line controllers are assigned to work the mid shift as well as a supervisor, according to NATCA. Midway Airport keeps two front-line controllers on duty, as do New York’s three major airports.

In addition to Reagan, two other FAA-operated towers in the greater Washington area are one-person: Andrews Air Force Base and Richmond, Va., NATCA said. Washington Dulles International Airport keeps two controllers on duty during the mid shift.

Reagan’s controllers handle very little overnight traffic as a result of a noise abatement program that tightly.

That light load likely contributed to the Wednesday incident, said John Goglia, an airline safety consultant and former member of the National Transportation Safety Board.– and made it easier for other controllers to safely bring the United and American jets in for landing,

“National is probably the best place for that to have happened,” Goglia said, adding that because of national security concerns, Washington’s air space is closely monitored. “They could know with certainty that there were no other planes around them. It is very restricted air space.”

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  1. BKG March 24 at 5:35 pm

    Once again, common sense is lacking among those who should know better. A one-person control tower situations is a prescription for disaster. My flight instructor was one of those killed in that mid-air collision over Meigs Field in 1997, but I didn’t know until now that it involved a distracted one-person controller.

    Also, I wonder how much – if any – of this dates in part to Reagan’s firing of the striking Air Traffic Controllers in 1981.

  2. robert March 24 at 5:38 pm

    I can vouch on this article. I work as an air traffic controller and i have seen many peers fall a sleep while working not just at the mid shift but in the morning shifts as well. I have also seen contollers turn there back to the scopes so that they could talk to there friends or they will be on the phone talking or texting. Controllers also like to haze fellow controllers for pure entertainment. So don’t be so surprised by this article because there is so much that goes on behind the scene. Just be glad that if you fly the airlines have TCAS on board because that saves many close encounters.

  3. JoeA March 25 at 11:25 a.m.

    I’m surprised that there is not some sort of security alert triggered when the control tower of a major airport suddenly can’t be contacted by radio nor by telephone.

  4. Ellie C March 25 at 11:55 a.m.

    Every airline pilot is well versed in procedures for landing at an uncontrolled field. There are plenty of airports that have commercial flights and no tower at all, and they do just fine. This is a lot of media hype over something many people don’t understand, intended to scare, shock and outrage. In other words, typical slanted reporting on a mischaracterized problem. This is not to say I don’t think that Reagan shouldn’t have two controllers in the tower at all times, given where it is and the security issues there.