Thu March 24, 2011
The Two-Way

Heard About The Sleeping Air Traffic Controller? Worried?

If there's a sure-fire "talker" among this morning's stories it's this:

"Two airliners landed at Reagan National Airport near Washington [around midnight Tuesday] without control tower clearance because the air traffic supervisor was asleep, safety and aviation officials said Wednesday." (The Associated Press)

According to The Washington Post, because the control tower was silent, "the pilots of two airliners carrying a total of 165 passengers and crew members [had] to land on their own."

The Post adds that "the tower, which normally is staffed by one air-traffic controller from midnight to 6 a.m., did not respond to pilot requests for landing assistance or to phone calls from controllers elsewhere in the region, who also used a 'shout line,' which pipes into a loudspeaker in the tower, internal records show."

The Federal Aviation Administration, as you might imagine, is conducting a nationwide review of tower staffing. And Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has already ordered that two controllers now be on duty at Reagan during the midnight shift.

You can hear some of the conversations that the pilots had with regional controllers if you go to LiveATC.net (free registration required to access its archive of recordings). At one point, the regional controller tells them that "a year or so ago" a similar incident happened when the controller at Reagan was locked out of the tower for a brief period.

The Associated Press says that "controllers at the regional facility, using radar, would have been able to advise the pilots of other nearby planes, experts said. The primary risk would have been if there were equipment on the runway when the planes landed, they said."

Given all this, here's a question: Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.