Sleeping Controller Triggered Chaotic Response, Report Shows

Two airliners landed in error at Washington’s Reagan National Airport March 23 after the lone tower controller on a midnight shift fell asleep and regional officials reacted incorrectly, a U.S. accident investigation concluded.

As air-traffic managers tried to figure out why nobody was responding to calls to the airport tower, a regional controller left pilots of incoming flights operated by AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and United Continental Holdings Inc.’s United Airlines with the impression they could land using rules for airports with unmanned towers, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report released yesterday.

Government-approved procedures for both carriers did not list Reagan National as an airport where such a landing was permitted, the NTSB report said. The planes landed without incident.

In the first official report to result from last spring’s spate of incidents involving sleeping controllers, the NTSB blamed the incident at Reagan National on the tower controller’s fatigue and Federal Aviation Administration’s scheduling practices.

The FAA has since revamped controller scheduling, assigned at least two controllers to every tower in overnight hours and revised guidelines for when no one in a tower is responding, the agency said in a statement.

Nine controllers were reported as sleeping on the job by the FAA earlier this year. The other cases came to light after the incident at National.

Four Midnight Shifts

American said its pilots acted properly.

“The FAA has cleared both pilots,” Andrea Huguely, an American spokeswoman, said in an interview. “There is no disciplinary action or anything against them.”

“Our pilots exercised good judgment in managing the situation they faced that night in Washington DC,” Mike Trevino, a spokesman for Chicago-based United, said yesterday.

The FAA supervisor who acknowledged falling asleep at the airport told investigators he was working his fourth consecutive midnight shift and his sleep had been disrupted the previous two days, according to the report.

The supervisor, who was not identified, said he felt “professionally embarrassed, shocked, panicked, ashamed,” the NTSB said.

That night, he recalled thinking “I need to throw some water on my face” because he was so tired. The next thing he knew he woke up in a daze, the report said.

American Flight 1012 and United Flight 628 landed while he was asleep. Another controller at a regional air-traffic facility advised the pilots that uncontrolled landings had been allowed at Reagan National before and they could decide what to do, the report said.

Uncontrolled Towers

Pilots are permitted to land at many other airports without a tower provided they announce themselves on the radio and follow other precautions.

A supervisor at the regional facility told investigators he should have ordered the controller to hold the jets rather than allowing them to land, the NTSB said. The supervisor said he had no training on how to handle such a situation, the report said.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said two days after the incident that he’d ordered controllers to tell pilots to divert to other airports if they couldn’t reach the tower.

In the confusion that night, the regional controller also didn’t clear the American flight to approach the airport, the NTSB said.

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