- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — An air traffic controller has been suspended for watching a movie when he was supposed to be monitoring aircraft, deepening the Federal Aviation Administration’s embarrassment following at least five cases of controllers sleeping on the job.

In the latest incident, the controller was watching a movie on a DVD player early Sunday morning while on duty at a regional radar center in Oberlin, Ohio, near Cleveland, that handles high-altitude air traffic, the FAA said in a statement Monday.

The controller’s microphone inadvertently was activated, transmitting the audio of the movie — the 2007 crime thriller “Cleaner,” starring Samuel L. Jackson — for more than three minutes to all the planes in the airspace that the controller was supposed to be monitoring, the agency said.

The controller’s microphone became stuck in the transmit position, preventing him from hearing incoming radio calls or issuing instructions to planes during the incident, the agency said.

The controller was alerted to the mishap when he was contacted by a military pilot.

Besides the controller, the FAA also has suspended a manager at the Oberlin center.

In all, the FAA has suspended nine controllers and supervisors since late March.

In five cases the controllers allegedly fell asleep. In another case, the FAA is investigating why two controllers in Lubbock, Texas, were unresponsive to radio calls.

Nearly all the incidents occurred during overnight shifts when traffic is light and people naturally have trouble staying awake.

The incidents have shaken FAA officials, made air traffic controllers the butt of late-night comedians and raised public jitters about the safety of air travel.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said early Monday, before the agency had disclosed the incident near Cleveland, that he was “infuriated” that air traffic controllers have been caught snoozing on the job.

“None of us in this business can … tolerate any of this,” Mr. Babbitt said. “It absolutely has to stop.”

Mr. Babbitt was at a regional radar center near Atlanta with Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents controllers. The pair met with about 50 controllers and other FAA employees as they kicked off a nationwide tour of air traffic facilities aimed at sending a message as much to the public as to controllers that unprofessional behavior won’t be tolerated.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has underscored the same message in a series of television interviews in the past several days. Even President Obama joined the chorus, telling ABC News last week, “We’ve got it under control.”

But every time administration officials say they’ve moved decisively to contain the problem, another controller steps over the line.

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