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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Two airliners land 'blind' at Reagan airport... because controller was ASLEEP

U.S. federal aviation officials are reviewing air traffic controller staffing after two airliners landed at Reagan National Airport without clearance from the tower because they were unable to raise anyone there.

An aviation official said the air traffic supervisor - the lone controller on duty around midnight on Tuesday when the incident occurred - had fallen asleep.

The pilots of two planes were in contact with controllers at a regional Federal Aviation Administration facility around 40 miles away in Virginia.

But after pilots were unable to raise the airport tower by radio, they asked controllers in Warrenton to call the tower, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, responding to the incident, said in a statement that he had directed the FAA to put two air traffic controllers on the midnight shift at Reagan National, near Washington.

He said: 'It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space.'

Reagan National is located in Northern Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington DC.

Mr LaHood also said he has directed FAA administrator Randy Babbitt to study tower staffing at other airports around the country.

NTSB is gathering information on the occurrence to decide whether to open a formal investigation, the spokesman added.

Regional air traffic facilities handle aircraft within roughly a 50-mile radius of an airport, but landings, take-offs and planes within about three miles of an airport are handled by controllers in the airport tower.

The planes involved were American Airlines flight 1012, a Boeing 737 with 91 passengers and six crew members on board, and United Airlines flight 628T, an Airbus A320 with 63 passengers and five crew members.

United spokesman Charles Hobart said: 'The NTSB is conducting an investigation and we doing our own review.'

FAA spokesman Laura Brown said the agency 'is looking into staffing issues and whether existing procedures were followed appropriately'.

It is unlikely the safety of the planes was at risk, as the pilots would have used a radio frequency for the airport tower to advise nearby aircraft of their intention to land and to make sure no other planes were landing at the same time, aviation safety experts said.

Controllers at the regional facility would also be able to advise of aircraft in the area.

But the incident has raised serious questions about controller fatigue, a long-standing safety concern.

John Goglia, a former NTSB board member, said: 'You have to watch your schedules to make sure (controllers) have adequate rest.

'It's worse when nothing is going on. When it's busy, you have to stay engaged.

'When it's quiet, all they have to be is a little bit tired and they'll fall asleep.'

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