Sleeping Air Traffic Controller Sparks Debate: Cost vs Safety

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Air Traffic Control Tower at DCA (Image: (cc) by Flickr user dbking)

(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) Two airplanes landed without the aid of air traffic control shortly after midnight Wednesday because the lone controller in the tower at Reagan National Airport fell asleep at the switch. (TN partner WAMU has been reporting on this out of D.C.) Politicians and regulators are all equally upset by the incident, but they disagree on how to respond, particularly on what to spend on a response. The positions are revealing a partisan divide on willingness, or depending on your perspective, eagerness, to spend on safety.

Before the next midnight shift, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood had directed the FAA to place two controllers on the night shift at Reagan Airport. "It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space," he said in a statement. He also called for an FAA investigation.

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Thursday, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt announced it had suspended the controller on duty early Wednesday morning.

“The FAA is thoroughly investigating Wednesday’s early morning incidents at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s control tower. While that is taking place, we have suspended the air traffic controller from all operational duties.”

These moves overall were welcomed by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "We applaud Transportation Secretary LaHood for quickly moving to put safety first and fix the situation at DCA yesterday by ordering additional staffing – a front-line controller – on the midnight shift, which took effect last night," a NATCA statement reads.

The statement continues, "One-person shifts are unsafe. Period... The administration inherited an unsafe policy of staffing to budget instead of putting safety first. We fully support the administration’s aggressive actions to change this policy. Safety should always be the top priority in any discussion of aviation policy."

Costs are a factor as well, and a key factor that may determine if any lasting changes are made.

The chair of House Transportation Committee, Congressman John Mica (R - Fla.) said the rush to staff up control towers "when there are no flights during the early morning hours, is a typical bureaucratic response."

“Increasing staff when there are no flights also violates FAA’s own management plan of staffing to air traffic. In difficult financial times for the nation, it is critical that we utilize our limited resources in the most responsible fashion without compromising safety,” he said.

Mica is initiating his own investigation under the Aviation Sub-Committee of the House Transportation Committee, citing "other recent performance failures" of air traffic control.

High profile incidents often become fodder for partisan battles over spending. Safety can be hard to oppose in the public eye, but Mica seems to be echoing his stance on infrastructure spending: that "we have to do more with less," and that cutting red tape and bureaucratic waste can uncover the dollars needed for our transportation needs.

Read more on the incident in the National Transportation Safety Board report on the ongoing investigation.

And listen to the air traffic control audio. When pilots could not raise the Reagan tower, they reached out to the regional Potomac Terminal Radar Approach. Here, a controller at PTRA tells the pilot of American 1900 he is about to go into an unmanned airport. At the time, the PTRA controller guesses the DCA controller has been locked out of his post.

Controller: "I've heard of this happening before."

Pilot: "That's the first time I've heard it." ...

"Pilot: "Interesting."

Controller: "It is."

The audio clip ends with the tower coming back on line and the pilot calling it a "close call."