- Associated Press - Thursday, April 14, 2011

RENO, Nev. (AP) — The head of the Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday the agency’s top official overseeing the nation’s air traffic system has resigned following disclosures of controllers falling asleep on the job.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement that Hank Krakowski, the head of the agency’s Air Traffic Organization, had submitted his resignation. FAA‘s chief counsel, David Grizzle, will take over Mr. Krakowski’s duties temporarily while the agency searches for a replacement.

Mr. Babbitt said he is conducting a “top to bottom” review of the FAA‘s entire air traffic system. He said recent disclosures of “unprofessional conduct on the part of a few individuals” have rightly caused the traveling public to question the system.

The FAA is adding a second overnight air traffic controller at more than two dozen airports around the country, reacting swiftly after a sleeping controller in Reno forced a medical flight to land unaided.

The arrival at 2 a.m. Wednesday at Reno-Tahoe International Airport followed several other recent incidents of controllers dozing on their shifts.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the controller was out of communication for about 16 minutes when the aircraft carrying at least three people was landing. No injuries were reported.

“This is absolutely unacceptable,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “The American public trusts us to run a safe system. Safety is our No. 1 priority and I am committed to working 24/7 until these problems are corrected.”

It was the second case this week of a controller being suspended for sleeping on the job. A controller at Boeing Field-King County International in Seattle fell asleep during his morning shift on Monday and was suspended, the FAA said. He already was facing disciplinary action for sleeping on two separate occasions during an early-evening shift in January, the agency said.

The latest cases follow three previously disclosed incidents in which controllers have been suspended, including two episodes of controllers sleeping on duty.

The FAA said Wednesday it was adding a second controller to work the overnight hours at 26 airports and a radar facility.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has warned against putting controllers alone on shifts and assigning tiring work schedules.

At most airport towers, there’s no restroom in the cab — the room on the top of the tower. With only one controller on duty, the position has to go unattended at times if the controller needs to use a restroom. It’s common for the nearest restroom to be located down a flight of stairs from the cab.

Two controllers at the airport in Lubbock, Texas, were suspended for an incident in the early-morning hours of March 29, the agency said. In that instance, a controller in Fort Worth had to try repeatedly to raise the Lubbock controllers in order to hand off control of an inbound aircraft. The controllers also failed to hand off a plane departing Lubbock to the Fort Worth radar center, FAA said.

“Air traffic controllers are responsible for making sure aircraft safely reach their destinations. We absolutely cannot and will not tolerate sleeping on the job,” Mr. Babbitt said in a statement Wednesday.

Mr. Babbitt and Paul Rinaldi, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents the FAA’s more than 15,000 controllers, will be visiting airports and radar facilities around the country next week “to reinforce the need for all air traffic personnel to adhere to the highest professional standards,” the FAA said in a statement.

The FAA last month put two controllers on duty during the midnight shift at the Reno-Tahoe airport but went back to one controller several days later after implementing new procedures, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said. Reno is one of the airports that will now get a second controller.

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