WASHINGTON — Should jetliners be landing with only a single air traffic controller on duty — even if he's awake?
Federal officials are grappling with that question following the safe landing of two jetliners this week with no help from the lone air traffic supervisor on duty at Washington's Reagan National Airport. He's been suspended, and safety investigators say he has acknowledged he was asleep.
The incident comes nearly five years after a fatal crash in Kentucky in which a controller was working alone. Accident investigators said that controller was most likely suffering from fatigue, although they placed responsibility for the crash that took 49 lives on the pilots.
Still, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association warned at the time against putting controllers alone on shifts and assigning tiring work schedules.
The union's president, Paul Rinaldi, made the same point again on Thursday: "One-person shifts are unsafe. Period."
The Reagan National incident, around midnight Tuesday night, has sent administration officials scrambling to assure the public that safety isn't being compromised. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered an examination of controller staffing at airports across the nation, and he directed that two controllers staff the midnight shift in Washington from now on.
Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt said he was investigating the incident, but he also said that 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."
The National Transportation Safety Board has opened its own investigation, and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has added yet another investigation.
The issue is likely to land in Congress' lap next week when the House is expected take up a Republican-drafted bill that would cut $4 billion over four years from the FAA. The agency says it needs more money, not less.
A House bill already calls for a National Academy of Sciences study of controller staffing. A Senate-passed version of the bill also would require a study.
"The incident at Reagan National Airport is troubling and of great concern," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the senior Democrat on the transportation committee. "We must deal with the immediate safety and security concerns of this critical airspace."
Besides Reagan National, at least two other airports in the Washington region — in Richmond, Va., and at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland — are also staffed by a single controller overnight. Among other airports identified by the controllers' union as staffed by one controller overnight were San Diego International and Sacramento International in California, Tucson International in Arizona, Reno-Tahoe International in Nevada and Ft. Lauderdale Executive in Florida.