Effective immediately, the FAA is placing an additional air traffic controller on the midnight shift at 27 airport control towers around the United States...

Effective immediately, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is placing an additional air traffic controller on the midnight shift at 27 airport control towers around the United States which are currently staffed with only one controller during that shift.

The FAA is taking this action after an incident on the morning of April 13 at Reno-Tahoe International Airport, when a controller fell asleep while a medical flight carrying an ill patient was trying to land. The medical-flight’s pilot was in communication with the Northern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) and landed safely, according to the FAA.

The controller, who was out of communication for approximately 16 minutes, has been suspended while the FAA investigates.

There have been several other recent incidents of controllers allegedly falling asleep while on duty – notably the lone controller working the midnight shift at Washington Reagan National Airport on the night of March 22-March 23, forcing two aircraft to land at the airport without any assistance from the Reagan National Control Tower.

“I am totally outraged by these incidents. This is absolutely unacceptable,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “The American public trusts us to run a safe system. Safety is our number one priority and I am committed to working 24/7 until these problems are corrected.”

“Air traffic controllers are responsible for making sure aircraft safely reach their destinations. We absolutely cannot and will not tolerate sleeping on the job. This type of unprofessional behavior does not meet our high safety standards,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.

Additionally, on March 27 the FAA suspended an air traffic controller supervisor in the Central Florida Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) for diverting a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 to check whether anyone was in the cockpit of a Cirrus SR22 aircraft which had been out of radio contact for more than an hour. Controllers at the Jacksonville Center had repeatedly tried to contact the aircraft, without success.

The pilots of the Southwest 737 complied with the air traffic controller’s request to investigate the Cirrus SR22 and saw two people in the light aircraft’s cockpit before the 737 turned away, 30 seconds after which the pilot of the Cirrus SR22 contacted Jacksonville Center.

However, the FAA’s preliminary of the incident indicated that there was a loss of required separation between the two aircraft, which the FAA said had compromised the safety of the passengers on board the 737.

As a result of the spate of incidents involving controllers, FAA Administrator Babbitt and National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi are launching a nationwide ‘Call to Action’ on air traffic control safety and professionalism.

In the week beginning April 18, with members of their senior leadership teams, Babbitt and Rinaldi will visit air traffic facilities around the U.S. to reinforce the need for all air traffic personnel to adhere to the highest professional standards.

The ‘Call to Action will also include an independent review of the FAA’s air traffic control training curriculum and qualifications and the expansion of NATCA’s Professional Standards committees.

The FAA is currently conducting a review of the air traffic control system to look at issues of staffing and scheduling.  As a result, the FAA says it is investigating additional incidents involving unresponsive air traffic controllers:

● The FAA has suspended an air traffic controller at Boeing Field/King County International Airport (BFI) in Seattle, Washington for falling asleep during his morning shift on April 11, 2011.  The controller was monitoring local traffic in the airport tower cab while two other controllers worked arriving and departing aircraft. The FAA is investigating this incident. The controller is already facing disciplinary action for falling asleep on two separate occasions during the early evening shift on January 6, 2011; and

● The FAA has also suspended two controllers for an incident that occurred during the early morning hours of March 29, 2011 at Preston Smith International Airport (LBB) in Lubbock, Texas.  During the midnight shift, the Lubbock controllers failed to hand off control of a departing aircraft to the Fort Worth Air Route Traffic Control Center. It also took repeated attempts for a controller at the Fort Worth Air Traffic Control Center to reach the Lubbock controllers to hand off an inbound aircraft.

FAA controllers, represented by NATCA, have long complained ever since 1981 that, following Ronald Reagan’s firing of all FAA air traffic controllers for going on strike, the FAA has not employed enough controllers or trained enough new controllers. As a result, say the controllers, they are forced to work unreasonably long hours of overtime, leading to loss of alertness and fatigue.