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Was Silent Air Traffic Controller Sleeping on Job?

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Two planes landed at Washington, D.C.’s, Reagan National Airport early Wednesday without clearance from air traffic control—because no one at Reagan’s tower was around, or awake, to provide it.

USA Today‘s Alan Levin reports, “Federal aviation officials are investigating why an air-traffic supervisor at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport failed to answer the radio and phone for at least 20 minutes early Wednesday while controllers at a nearby facility repeatedly called the tower and juggled flights heading to the airport.”

Following the incident, Department of Transportation chief Ray LaHood mandated that two controllers be present in Reagan’s tower overnight.

Speculation has focused on perhaps the likeliest explanation, which is that the controller working that night was asleep. The National Transportation Safety Board and FAA are both investigating. Neither group has yet offered a firm explanation.

This comes just weeks after a report showed that while airplane accidents are near all-time lows, air traffic control errors are trending sharply upward. Some air traffic controllers have complained of lax attitudes in the tower, though the FAA suggested the rise in errors is due mostly to more accurate error reporting. And though they are increasing, air traffic control mistakes are still rare.

But incidents like this, with a potentially sleeping controller, pose serious risks to both passenger safety and confidence. It will be very interesting to see what the investigation turns up.

Readers, do you feel safe when you take to the skies?

**UPDATE** The controller in question admitted to falling asleep on the job. The New York Times has a transcript of the conversation between the aircraft and the tower at a nearby airport.

The controller has been suspended, per a statement from FAA Administrator Randy Babbit:

“The FAA is thoroughly investigating Wednesday’s early morning incidents at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s control tower. While that is taking place, we have suspended the air traffic controller from all operational duties. I am determined to get to the bottom of this situation for the safety of the traveling public.

“As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes. Fortunately, at no point was either plane out of radar contact and our back-up system kicked in to ensure the safe landing of both airplanes.”

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