If Air Traffic Control's Asleep, What Now?

Posted Mar 24th 2011 12:00 PMUpdated Mar 25th 2011 08:43 AM


air traffic asleep reagan washington

Joshua Davis, flickr

Two airplanes landed at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. yesterday without the ability to make contract with the one air traffic controller on duty, leading federal investigators to open an inquiry into the possibility a controller had fallen asleep. A seasoned pilot calls the incident a "huge deal."

Around 12:10 a.m., pilots of American Airlines Flight 1012, a Boeing 737 from Dallas, were unable to make contact with the control tower, aborted a landing and circled the airport. The plane had 91 passengers and six crew members onboard.

About 15 minutes later, United Airlines Flight 628, an Airbus A320 from Chicago, with 63 passengers and five crew members onboard, was also unable to reach the tower.

Both flights were able to make contact with controllers at a regional facility about 40 miles away and successfully landed without any local controller assistance.

"The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) is conducting an investigation and we are doing our own review," a United spokesman says.

A seasoned commercial airline pilot, who asked not to be named, tells AOL Travel News that landing at uncontrolled airports is not unusual. When no controller is available, aircraft must communicate to surrounding air traffic, describing their actions.

But this was not an ordinary airport.

The pilot says that landing in the Capital City without tower assistance is, "a huge deal being so close to the White House and Pentagon." Reagan National is located just across the Potomac River from Washington.

The incident has already led the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to start looking nationwide at air control tower staffing issues. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today also directed the FAA to put two air traffic controllers on midnight shift at Reagan National.

"It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space," LaHood says in a statement.

This is not the first time federal investigators have looked at issues regarding air traffic controllers in the Washington area. In August 2010, the Washington Post reported that over the past seven years, air traffic controllers in the area had exceeded the annual number of allowable errors, prompting additional scrutiny from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

UPDATED, 1 p.m.: The FAA says it has suspended the air traffic controller who failed to respond to the planes.

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Stop replacing sleeping controllers and close the tower at night when there's little or no traffic. Pilots don't require controllers to accomplish safe landings.

April 17 2011 at 4:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kitty Katz


NOW, here are my thoughts, have the FAA provide naps and snack time, if it is good enough for Kindergarten children then the why not for Air Traffic Controllers? Throw in a little mat and blanket due to union regulations, and problem fixed!


April 16 2011 at 8:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Perhaps we're focusing on the wrong things regarding our safety. What's the use of taking off our shoes, etc. if our plane is going to crash because there's no one home in the tower? Whoever makes up these routines and work schedules must work for Al Khaida.

March 25 2011 at 2:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Here is something most of the flying community may not be aware of. The FAA, in order to save money, has assigned aviation weather observing duties to numerous towers. At sites like Baton Rouge, Peoria, and Colorado Springs, professional aviation weather observers were removed and their duties were taken over by air traffic controllers. Problem is, the people in the tower are NOT qualified to take on these extra duties. They have NO experience or training in meteorology. In order to get "qualified" they merely take a computer based lesson. Professional observers have to take a written exam, administered by the NWS and score at least 80. it is a 50 question exam, so only 10 questions can be missed. The errors by controllers are horrendous, especially during times of thunderstorms, snowstorms, etc. The worse the weather, the more errors.

March 25 2011 at 2:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

...and they want to run healthcare from DC ..??

March 24 2011 at 8:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Larry W. Bruce

Great ! Between the pilots being distracted by their computers and the air traffic controller supervisor falling asleep in the tower we may end up in Cabo San Lucus on a booked flight between Portland and Seattle. Woo Hoo !

March 24 2011 at 8:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

A seasoned pilot called this a big deal? When he was flying in training, he never flew into an airport where you had to click the mike three times to turn on the runway lights? I think he is not so seasoned, but another affirmative action pilot...or a her. I flew 20 years in the Navy. No biggie.

March 24 2011 at 7:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joe Wizner

Sorry, important well paying job, major busy airport. No excuse for sleeping.

March 24 2011 at 7:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John Swinney

Seems to me if it was really that dangerous the pilots would have rerouted to another airport in the area. If it was really dangerous to land, then why is nobody asking the pilots why they put the plane in danger? Just a question.

March 24 2011 at 7:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sounds like the same stuff we kept hearing about Gerorge W, How do you left wingers like it.

March 24 2011 at 7:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply