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Reagan Airport Gets Second Controller on Sleep Concerns

Reagan National Airport
US Airways aircraft sit on the tarmac at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport will get a second nighttime air-traffic controller after two flights had to land unaided, possibly because the lone person on duty was asleep. That controller was suspended.

“It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. He also asked the Federal Aviation Administration to study staffing levels at other airports around the country.

The controller has been suspended “from all operational duties” pending an agency investigation, Randy Babbitt, the FAA’s administrator, said in an e-mailed statement today. “I am determined to get to the bottom of this,” Babbitt said. His statement didn’t address whether the worker was asleep.

The National Transportation Safety Board began an examination after pilots on two flights were unable to contact air-traffic control at the hub airport outside Washington, forcing them to land unassisted, Peter Knudson, a spokesman, said in an interview yesterday. The board doesn’t yet know why contact couldn’t be made, and it is looking at the possibility that the sole controller on duty was asleep, he said.

The AMR Corp. American Airlines and United Continental Holdings Inc. United planes involved landed safely around midnight on March 22, Knudson said.

The American pilots aborted a first landing attempt when no one in the tower responded to calls, and landed the second time without assistance, Knudson said. The United pilots regarded the airport the same as others that don’t have controllers in early morning hours, and landed on the first attempt, he said.

The planes were in contact with controllers at a regional center in Virginia, he said.

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