US suspends napping air traffic controller
No one was hurt as a sleepy tower operator snoozed through landing of a medical flight in fifth such incident this year.
Last Modified: 14 Apr 2011 07:00

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada said the Reno incident was unacceptable [EPA]

A US air traffic controller has been suspended from his job after falling asleep while a medical flight was landing in the state of Nevada, marking the fifth lapse so far this year among controllers at American airports.

The controller at Reno-Tahoe International Airport was out of communication for about 16 minutes when the aircraft carrying at least three people was landing about at 2am local time on Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said.

No injuries were reported as a result of the incident, but the head of the airport has called for increased staffing.

In response to the lapses, the FAA announced that it was immediately putting a second controller on the midnight shift at 26 airports and a radar facility around the country that have only one overnight person.

"I am totally outraged by these incidents. This is absolutely unacceptable," Ray LaHood, the US transportation secretary said in a statement.

"The American public trusts us to run a safe system. Safety is our No. 1 priority and I am committed to working 24/7 until these problems are corrected."

Krys Bart, an airport chief, said earlier: "The flying public needs an assurance from the FAA that this situation will be addressed at all airports."

She said the pilot of the Reno-bound medical flight and airport staff had tried to contact the controller multiple times without success.

The FAA said the pilot was in contact with regional radar controllers in northern California during the landing.

Last month, the FAA put two controllers on duty during the midnight shift at the Reno-Tahoe airport, but went back to one controller several days later after implementing new procedures, Ian Gregor, FAA spokesman said.

Previous lapses

Elsewhere, two jetliners landed at Washington's Reagan National Airport last month without tower assistance after the lone air traffic supervisor fell asleep.

An investigation by the FAA uncovered a second incident of an air traffic controller sleeping on the job in February during the midnight shift at McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tenn.

The agency also said a controller in Seattle had been suspended for falling asleep during a morning shift on Monday.

The controller already faced punishment for falling asleep on two other occasions during an evening shift in January, the FAA said.

In addition, two controllers in Texas were suspended after two failed hand-offs two weeks ago.

LaHood previously ordered an examination of controller staffing at airports across the nation and directed that two controllers staff the midnight shift in Washington.

A separate investigation was ordered by the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada said the Reno incident was unacceptable, and his office was asking the FAA that a minimum of two air traffic control personnel work in the tower at all times.

Fatal crash

The incidents come nearly five years after a fatal crash in Kentucky in which a controller was working alone.
Investigators said the controller in Kentucky was most likely suffering from fatigue, although they placed responsibility for the crash that took 49 lives on the pilots.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has warned against putting controllers alone on shifts and assigning tiring work schedules.

At most airport towers, there is no bathroom in the cab, the room on the top of the tower.

With only one controller on duty, the position has to go unattended at times if the controller needs to use a bathroom.

It is common for the nearest bathroom to be located down a flight of stairs from the cab.

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