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Two More Air-Traffic Controllers Suspended for Sleeping on Duty

Air Traffic Controllers
Air traffic controllers at the Terminal Radar Approach Control Center near Warrenton, VA. Photographer: Dayna Smith/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Two more U.S. air-traffic controllers were suspended for sleeping on the job, regulators said as they boosted staffing at 27 towers to prevent more fatigue failures.

One slept while a medical flight with an ill patient tried to land today at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement. The flight landed safely with help from a California worker. The other controller fell asleep April 11 at Seattle’s King County International Airport, the FAA said. That worker was facing disciplinary action for falling asleep twice on a Jan. 6 shift.

The reports bring to four the number of controllers reported by the FAA as sleeping on the job this year. That number may grow. Two more were suspended for failing to hand off control of a departing plane in Lubbock, Texas, on March 29 and for failing to respond until contact attempts were repeated, the FAA said.

“I am sick of this,” Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said in a statement. “We can’t have an aviation system where some of the people responsible for safety are literally asleep at the switch.”

Midnight Controller Added

The agency will add an extra controller at the 27 towers staffed with one worker on the midnight shift, the FAA statement said. Agency chief Randy Babbitt and the controllers’ union president, Paul Rinaldi, will visit facilities around the country next week to reinforce the need for “the highest professional standards,” according to the FAA.

Doug Church, a spokesman for Rinaldi of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, didn’t immediately return a telephone call for comment.

Representative John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the House transportation committee, criticized the decision to add controllers.

“Only in the federal government would you double up on workers, averaging $161,000 per year in salary and benefits, that aren’t doing their job,” Mica said in a statement. Mica has pushed legislation that would allow as many as 90 smaller airports to switch from federal to private controllers.

The fatigue problem is not a new one, said John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member.

Known Problem

“People have known these problems with fatigue have existed for years,” said Goglia, a Boston-based aviation safety consultant. “They’re now showing up. The FAA is admitting they exist. Now the FAA needs to work on it.”

The NTSB four years ago asked the FAA to work with the controllers’ union to revise work schedules and practices, and to develop a fatigue awareness program. The safety board singled out the common practice of scheduling controllers to work increasingly early shifts over a week as “especially problematic.”

Babbitt said April 6 a controller was in the process of being fired for deliberately sleeping on the job at the McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee, on February 19.

The four controllers in Nevada, Seattle and Texas have been suspended pending investigations, the FAA said.

AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and United Continental Holdings Inc.’s United Airlines planes carrying a combined 154 passengers landed without tower assistance after midnight on March 23 at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport after failing to make contact with a controller, who told investigators he had fallen asleep. That controller was suspended in March.

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