Sleeping Controller Unaware of Airplane Landings

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Randy Babbitt, said he is “personally outraged” that a sleeping controller in Washington’s Reagan National Airport (DCA) tower caused two airliners to land without benefit of guidance or assistance. Perhaps the outrage should be focused on FAA policies that caused the lone controller to fall asleep. This fiasco was organizationally-induced.

The controller was apparently drifting in dreamland shortly after midnight on 23 March, alone in the darkened control room high above the airport.

The control tower at Washington's Reagan National Airport

The control tower at Washington's Reagan National Airport

The pilots of an American Airlines B737 from Dallas-Ft. Worth, operating as flight 1012 with 97 people aboard, were unable to raise the controller via radio shortly after midnight. The pilots executed a missed approach to sort things out. The Potomac TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) was contacted.

The TRACON controller informed the American pilot on the radio, “The tower is apparently not manned … you can expect to go into an uncontrolled airport.”

“Is there a reason it’s not manned?” queried the American pilot.

“The controller got locked out. I’ve heard of it happening before,” the TRACON controller advised.

The American B737 then landed at Washington National and pulled up to the gate without any assistance from the controller. The controller was not locked out of the control room; he admitted he was asleep.

About 15 minutes later, a United Airlines A320 from Chicago, operating as flight 628T with 68 people aboard, was also unable to raise the tower. The pilot made position reports and landed.

The FAA has suspended the supervisory controller (with pay), who awakened after the two planes landed.

“As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes,” said Babbitt.

It should be noted that this controller, as an FAA supervisor, was not a member of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).

NATCA President Paul Rinaldi issued the following statement after the incident:

“During the incident at DCA on the midnight shift Wednesday morning, there was one FAA supervisor on duty, instead of a front-line controller. This was an FAA management supervisor …

“NATCA has long been outspoken in its opposition to one-person staffing on any shift … One-person shifts are unsafe. Period. The most horrifying proof of this came on August 27, 2006, when 49 people lost their lives aboard Comair flight 191 in Lexington, KY, when there was only one controller assigned to duty in the tower handling multiple controllers’ responsibilities alone. One person staffing was wrong then and it’s wrong now.”

The practice is routine at about 30 airports nationwide, including at Washington DC.

The controller indicated he was on his fourth consecutive overnight shift (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.) when he fell asleep. This time period is known as known as the “circadian low” when people are particularly sleepy.

Just two days before the Washington National event, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended to the FAA that supervisory personnel not concurrently perform operational air traffic control duties. The recommendation cited a fatal aircraft accident and two incidents in a 23-month period between 2007 and 2009.

The NTSB recommendation letter to the FAA said:

“In [one} event, a controller was on duty alone during the midnight shift and was therefore responsible for supervising himself. The particular difficulty of supervising oneself is amply demonstrated in most of the events discussed in that the controller committing the error was also action as CIC [controller-in-charge].”

The NTSB has also placed fatigue, and eliminating same, on its “Most Wanted” list of aviation safety improvements. Details of this “Most Wanted” recommendation include:

“Set working hour limits for flight crews, aviation mechanics, and air traffic controllers based on fatigue research, circadian rhythms, and sleep and rest requirements. [Emphasis added]

“Develop a fatigue awareness and countermeasures training program for controllers and those who schedule them for duty.”

This “Most Wanted” recommendation is color-coded red, meaning an unacceptable response from the FAA.

Former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall says:

“This incident represents the tip of an iceberg that needs to be carefully monitored by safety interests. The confluence of the retirement of the core of experienced controllers, the failure to ramp up hiring and training to anticipate this challenge, as well as the uncertainty of FAA appropriations and increased traffic were brought together in this incident. The fact that no one at the FAA had enough political awareness to ensure the proper staffing of the Washington Reagan Airport tower, especially after the attacks of 9/11, make one wonder: who is in charge?”

The NTSB is now investigating the Washington National event. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered that two controllers be on duty in the airport tower at all times. He has not directed a change to the 29 other airports were single staffing is permitted by the FAA.