If Air Traffic Control's Asleep, What Now?

air traffic asleep reagan washington

Joshua Davis, flickr

Two airplanes landed at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. yesterday without the ability to make contract with the one air traffic controller on duty, leading federal investigators to open an inquiry into the possibility a controller had fallen asleep. A seasoned pilot calls the incident a "huge deal."

Around 12:10 a.m., pilots of American Airlines Flight 1012, a Boeing 737 from Dallas, were unable to make contact with the control tower, aborted a landing and circled the airport. The plane had 91 passengers and six crew members onboard.

About 15 minutes later, United Airlines Flight 628, an Airbus A320 from Chicago, with 63 passengers and five crew members onboard, was also unable to reach the tower.

Both flights were able to make contact with controllers at a regional facility about 40 miles away and successfully landed without any local controller assistance.

"The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) is conducting an investigation and we are doing our own review," a United spokesman says.

A seasoned commercial airline pilot, who asked not to be named, tells AOL Travel News that landing at uncontrolled airports is not unusual. When no controller is available, aircraft must communicate to surrounding air traffic, describing their actions.

But this was not an ordinary airport.

The pilot says that landing in the Capital City without tower assistance is, "a huge deal being so close to the White House and Pentagon." Reagan National is located just across the Potomac River from Washington.

The incident has already led the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to start looking nationwide at air control tower staffing issues. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today also directed the FAA to put two air traffic controllers on midnight shift at Reagan National.

"It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space," LaHood says in a statement.

This is not the first time federal investigators have looked at issues regarding air traffic controllers in the Washington area. In August 2010, the Washington Post reported that over the past seven years, air traffic controllers in the area had exceeded the annual number of allowable errors, prompting additional scrutiny from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

UPDATED, 1 p.m.: The FAA says it has suspended the air traffic controller who failed to respond to the planes.

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