WASHINGTON – The Federal Aviation Administration gave air traffic controllers new procedures Friday as officials try to contain the fallout from an incident earlier this week in which two airliners landed at Reagan National Airport without assistance because the lone controller on duty was asleep.
Regional radar facilities are now required to alert controllers working alone at night in an airport tower that a plane is approaching, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement. The radar controllers are “to confirm that there is a controller prepared to handle the incoming flight,” he said.
Regional controllers have also been reminded that if no controller can be raised at an airport tower, proper procedures require they offer pilots the option of diverting to another airport, Babbitt said.
Controllers at a regional FAA radar facility in Warrenton, Va., about 40 miles from Reagan, didn’t offer that option to the pilots who were unable to reach the airport’s tower between 12:04 and 12:28 a.m. on Wednesday.
Repeated phone calls from the regional facility to the tower also went unanswered.
The planes – an American Airlines flight from Dallas and a United Airlines flight from Chicago with a combined 165 people on board – landed safely.
Pilots can always decide on their own authority to divert to another airport, said Rory Kay, a former Air Line Pilots Association safety chairman and an international airline captain.
The controller on duty in the tower – a veteran air traffic supervisor – acknowledged to investigators who interviewed him Thursday that he had dozed off, the National Transportation Safety Board said. The controller, who has not been identified, was working his fourth 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift in a row, according to the board, which is investigating the episode.
The incident has renewed concern about the potential safety consequences of controllers suffering from fatigue, a long-standing concern of the board.
It has also sparked criticism of FAA’s practice of scheduling a single controller on overnight shifts at some airports, but especially at Reagan, which is in Arlington, Va., and just across the Potomac River from downtown Washington.
“This is not a mom-and-pop airport for small planes, and is in the vicinity of some very sensitive airspace,” Kay said.
At least one congressional committee has launched its own investigation, and the issue is expected to be raised next week when the House takes up a bill to provide long-term authority for FAA programs.
On Wednesday night, less than 24 hours after the incident, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered a second controller be added to the overnight shift at Reagan
On Friday, the safety board recommended to the FAA that it no longer allow air traffic controllers to provide supervisory oversight while performing operational air traffic duties. The recommendation wasn’t directly related to this week’s incident. But if the FAA were to follow the board’s recommendation, the agency would effectively have to assign at least two people – a supervisor and a controller – to every shift.
In a previous letter to the FAA, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman pointed to several previous airport accidents in which the air traffic supervisor on duty was also working as a controller directing air traffic instead of being free to devote attention entirely to the supervising of controllers.