Another Controller Falls Asleep on the Job; FAA Takes Action

Officials say this is the sixth such incident this year.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt made clear yesterday that he has had enough of air traffic controllers falling asleep during their shifts, and to get his point across he has vowed to start making personal visits to ATC facilities around the country starting next week.

The final straw came Tuesday night when the lone tower controller working the overnight shift at Reno-Tahoe International Airport fell asleep at about 2 a.m. as an incoming medical flight carrying a sick patient was attempting to land.

“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,” Babbitt said.

The controller was out of communication for 16 minutes, during which time the Piper Cheyenne pilot communicated with a Tracon controller and landed safely.

Babbitt announced yesterday that the FAA will immediately assign an extra controller on the midnight shifts at 27 control towers around the country. And just this morning, Hank Krakowski, the head of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization responsible for ATC, submitted his resignation.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood voiced his displeasure as well, and called for a system-wide investigation. “I am totally outraged by these incidents,” he said. “This is absolutely unacceptable. 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.”

As a result, 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. Next week, with members of their senior leadership teams, they will visit air traffic facilities around the country 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.

This isn’t the first time a controller has fallen asleep on the job in recent months.

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

The FAA said it has also suspended two controllers for an incident that occurred during the early morning hours of March 29 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, officials said.

The FAA said it is also is in the process of firing a controller who fell asleep at Knoxville, Tennessee’s McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) in February.

And just last month, a controller who was staffing the tower at Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA) admitted he was napping when two airplanes tried unsuccessfully to contact the tower before landing anyway.