Weeks after the lone overnight air-traffic controller at Washington’s Reagan National Airport admitted falling asleep in 2011 as two jetliners approached, five similar incidents emerged.
That prompted Senator Jay Rockefeller to say he called the Federal Aviation Administration’s chief to tell him he was “sick of this,” and triggered Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s April 2011 order banning controllers from working alone in the wee hours.
LaHood’s action, intended to stanch what was becoming an embarrassment for his department, added people and costs that the FAA concluded weren’t needed. Twenty-three of the 27 facilities that got a second overnight controller under LaHood’s order didn’t have enough air traffic to justify being open at all in late hours, according to a 2011 agency study.
“Clearly those 23 facilities should have been shut down at night,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, which advocates libertarian policies.
LaHood’s decision illustrates how difficult it is for the FAA, which reports to him, to reduce staffing or hours at its facilities in response to declining air traffic, according to aviation experts.
At the time of his decision, LaHood said he was acting to ensure safety. “I am totally outraged by these incidents,” he said in a release the day of the decision. “This is absolutely unacceptable.”
Sasha Johnson, a LaHood spokeswoman, referred questions on controller issues to the FAA.
Air traffic fell 17 percent from 2000 to 2010 in the U.S. with steeper drops at hubs abandoned by airlines or some smaller airports with private-plane traffic, according to FAA data compiled by Bloomberg.
More than 100 U.S. airport towers and radar rooms have so few flights that they should be shut down late at night under the FAA’s guidelines, a move that would save taxpayers $10 million a year. Members of Congress from both parties, sometimes acting at the request of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, have blocked attempts to cut tower hours or merge radar rooms, according to interviews and documents.
One of the towers the FAA wanted to close at night, until relenting under pressure from Michigan lawmakers led by Democratic Senator Carl Levin, was at Willow Run Airport near Detroit.
Willow Run was opened by Henry Ford in 1942 to construct B-24 Liberator bombers with the help of Charles Lindbergh, and hasn’t served as Detroit’s primary airport since the 1950s. It was one of the airports that got a second overnight controller under LaHood’s order, even though it averages one takeoff or landing an hour between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., according to FAA data.
More than one-third of FAA-staffed airport towers and regional radar rooms -- 102 out of 294 -- averaged fewer than four landings or takeoffs an hour late at night, according to the FAA study of traffic patterns from July 1, 2010 through June 30, 2011. Bloomberg News obtained hundreds of pages of FAA documents through the Freedom of Information Act.
The agency’s own guidance says that if flights remain at that level for at least five straight hours, a tower or radar room can be closed during the slow period. The 2008 FAA order setting guidelines allows the agency to make exceptions if there is commercial traffic, military flights or another reason requiring controllers.
Shutting a control facility with that few flights won’t undercut safety, according to the agency’s order.
The agency took some steps to limit costs to the taxpayer of adding a second controller by insisting, at least in one case, that the airport pay for it.
DuPage Airport in West Chicago, Illinois, which caters to corporate flights, pays the FAA for air-traffic coverage from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., said David Bird, executive director of DuPage Airport Authority. The airport’s annual bill rose to $448,000 from $246,000 following the order to bring in a second controller, he said.
The FAA also shaved costs at an unspecified number of airports by moving a controller responsible for monitoring radars into a tower overnight, thereby having two persons on duty together without having to add to staffing, according to an e-mailed statement by the agency.
The FAA won’t say whether it considered closing some or all of the low-activity airports at night, Brie Sachse, an agency spokeswoman, said in an interview.
Under FAA rules, pilots can land without a tower if they coordinate with other planes on the radio. It’s not unusual for all kind of planes, even commercial flights, to land without controller assistance. At least 50 U.S. airports without a tower reported 2,000 or more airline flights in 2010, according to FAA data.
“The fact is that at very low-traffic airports, it is perfectly safe for aircraft to operate without air-traffic control,” Bill Voss, a former FAA air-traffic manager, said in an interview.
The wave of sleeping-controller incidents that led to LaHood’s order began March 23, 2011.
A supervisor on duty by himself at Washington’s airport tower told investigators he fell asleep a few minutes after midnight during his fourth overnight shift in a row, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report on the incident.
Two jets, aircraft operated by AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and United Continental Holdings Inc.’s United Airlines, landed at the airport before the supervisor woke up 24 minutes later.
On April 6, 2011, then-FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told a congressional committee the agency had discovered a second case. This time, a controller working alone in a radar room at McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee, fell asleep deliberately, the agency said in an e-mail statement.
A medical flight had to land without air-traffic assistance on April 11, 2011, at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada after a lone controller didn’t respond to radio calls, according to the agency.
“We can’t have an aviation system where some of the people responsible for safety are literally asleep at the switch,” Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who heads the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee, said in a statement April 13.
The number of incidents in which controllers were suspected of sleeping or being unresponsive in air-traffic facilities eventually rose to nine.
While controller fatigue is a safety concern, the incidents and the reaction to them gave an erroneous impression that the air-traffic system was in crisis, said Voss, who now serves as president of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation. That prompted overreactions, Voss said.
“The story became so overblown, the risk was so overblown, that it would seem incomprehensible to talk about reducing the hours at some of these facilities,” he said.