- Associated Press - Thursday, March 24, 2011

Should jetliners be landing with only a single air traffic controller on duty — even if he is awake?

Federal officials have been grappling with that question since the safe landing of two jetliners this week with no help from the lone air traffic supervisor on duty at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. He has been suspended, and safety investigators say he has acknowledged being asleep.

The incident comes nearly five years after a fatal crash in Kentucky in which a controller was working alone. Accident investigators said that controller was most likely experiencing fatigue, although they placed responsibility for the crash that took 49 lives on the pilots.

Still, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association warned at the time against putting controllers alone on shifts and assigning tiring work schedules.

The union’s president, Paul Rinaldi, made the same point again Thursday: “One-person shifts are unsafe. Period.”

The Reagan Airport incident, which occurred around midnight Tuesday, has sent administration officials scrambling to assure the public that safety isn’t being compromised. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered an examination of controller staffing at airports across the nation, and has directed that two controllers staff the midnight shift in Washington from now on.

Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt said he was investigating the incident, but he also said that at “no point was either plane out of radar contact, and our backup system kicked in to ensure the safe landing of both airplanes.”

The National Transportation Safety Board has opened its own investigation, and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has added yet another investigation.

The issue is likely to land in Congress’ lap next week when the House is tentatively expected to take up a Republican-drafted bill that would cut $4 billion over four years from the FAA. The agency has said it needs more money, not less.

A House bill already calls for a National Academy of Sciences study of controller staffing. A Senate-passed version of the bill also would require a study.

“The incident at Reagan National Airport is troubling and of great concern,” said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, West Virginia Democrat, the senior party member on the transportation panel. “We must deal with the immediate safety and security concerns of this critical airspace.”

Besides Reagan Airport, at least two other airports in the Washington region in Richmond and at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland are staffed by a single controller overnight.

The Washington controller, who hasn’t been identified, was on his fourth straight overnight shift, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., the NTSB said.

But some aviation safety experts say perhaps too much is being made of this week’s incident.

“It’s not outrageous for the agency to avoid putting a second six-figure employee into a tower where they may only work a dozen airplanes in a shift,” said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation of Alexandria, Va., and a former air traffic controller.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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