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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Air Traffic Controller Sends Plane To Look At Pilot

"Compromised the safety of everyone involved"

An air traffic supervisor has been suspended after sending a Southwest Airlines flight too close to a small private plane over Florida to check on the pilot.

It happened Sunday afternoon.

The National Transportation Safety Board says a Southwest Airlines airplane with 137 passengers onboard was requested to veer off course by Air Traffic Control to view into the cockpit of a plane that had been out of radio communication for an hour.

It happened on Sunday, March 27, 2011. Southwest Airlines flight 821 was requested by Central Florida Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) to check on a Cirrus SR22
The Cirrus was on course for Kissimmee, Fla. and maintaining altitude at 11,000 feet.

The air traffic control crews moved the Southwest plane close enough to the small plane that the pilots could look into the cockpit. The pilots reported seeing two people in the cockpit. The Southwest flight turned away and the air traffic controller then vectored the aircraft for its arrival at Orlando International Airport.

Approximately thirty seconds later the Cirrus contacted Jacksonville Center who gave them the current frequency. Both aircraft landed safely at their destinations.

A source at the airline called it an "unusual" request. An initial investigation by the FAA reported that there was a loss of required separation between the two aircraft.

“By placing this passenger aircraft in close proximity to another plane, the air traffic controller compromised the safety of everyone involved. This incident was totally inappropriate,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt in a statement . “We are reviewing the air traffic procedures used here and making sure everyone understands the protocols for contacting unresponsive aircraft.”

Flight 821 was traveling between Phoenix's Sky Harbor International and Orlando International. The flight took about three and a half hours. The flight was scheduled to arrival 5:00 p.m. but it arrived about 21 minutes late.

Southwest Airlines released a statement to saying, "As always, Safety is the top priority at Southwest Airlines. We are fully cooperating with relevant authorities and will support all parties during the investigation process. Because it is an ongoing investigation, we cannot comment further at this time."

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