FAA beefing up overnight air traffic control

By Dow Jones Newswires-Wall Street Journal
Posted Thursday at 6:49 a.m.

Overnight staffing will be beefed up at 26 airports nationwide, federal air-safety officials said, in response to a spate of air-traffic controllers falling asleep on duty. In the latest incident, the pilot of an airborne ambulance landed in Nevada on Wednesday without help from a dozing controller.

The airports affected by the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision previously had one controller in the tower overnight and now will be staffed by two. They include sizeable airports such those in Burbank and Sacramento in California; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Omaha, Neb.

Also Wednesday, the FAA announced suspensions of four controllers for nodding off in front of radar screens during the past two weeks, following a pair of similar incidents disclosed previously. The moves underscore broader safety and fatigue concerns affecting the roughly 15,000 FAA employees responsible for keeping planes apart in the air and on the ground.

Those concerns broke into the open last month when a controller working by himself at Washington’s Reagan National Airport nodded off around midnight, forcing the pilots of two jetliners to land on their own. The FAA quickly added a second controller to the tower’s midnight shift, and agency officials promised to review such staffing elsewhere.

FAA chief Randy Babbitt on Wednesday announced a national effort to ensure the “safety and professionalism” of controllers. The initiative is slated to start next week with visits by agency and union official to control facilities.

Fatigue problems among controllers are becoming public as a group of FAA and union officials are trying to fashion a program that would, for the first time, allow controllers to take naps during their breaks.

The recent incidents are “the tip of the iceberg,” and an experiment allowing some so-called controlled napping would be a major step forward, said Curt Graeber, a fatigue expert and former high-ranking Boeing Co. safety official.

The Nevada controller was suspended, according to the FAA, after dozing for 16 minutes at Reno-Tahoe International Airport before dawn Tuesday during the landing of the airborne ambulance carrying a patient.

Also, two tower controllers in Lubbock, Texas, were suspended for failing to respond to radio calls March 29

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