- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2011

The federal official with direct oversight of the nation’s air traffic control system resigned Thursday, after a string of incidents in which controllers were caught sleeping on the job, Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt announced.

Hank Krakowski, head of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, submitted his resignation after embarrassing accounts of overworked controllers asleep at their posts, including an incident last month at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in which two planes were forced to land without aid from the control tower. The reports have sparked a full review of operations, agency officials said Thursday.

“Over the last few weeks, we have seen examples of unprofessional conduct on the part of a few individuals that have rightly caused the traveling public to question our ability to ensure their safety,” Mr. Babbitt said. “We are conducting a top-to-bottom review of the way we operate our air traffic control system.”

One controller was suspended by the FAA on Wednesday after napping while a medical flight with a sick patient tried to land at an airfield in Reno, Nev. The flight landed safely, but the air traffic controller on duty failed to communicate with the pilot “for approximately 16 minutes,” the FAA said Wednesday.

In one immediate policy change, FAA officials said they will be adding an extra controller at 27 towers that have only one controller on duty during midnight shifts. The administration will also look into issues of staffing and scheduling during their review.

David Grizzle, the chief counsel to FAA, will serve as acting ATO chief operating officer while the Obama administration seeks a permanent replacement.

The FAA is investigating at least five similar incidents. In an unusual choice of words, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told ABC News in an interview, “We will not sleep until we can guarantee that there is good safety in the control towers when these planes are coming in and out of airports.”

But the FAA’s plan to add new controllers was criticized by one key congressional Republican who said expensive new hires was not the solution.

Said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica of Florida, “Only in the federal government would you double up on workers, averaging $161,000 per year in salary and benefits, that aren’t doing their job.

“This increase in staffing, when there is little to no traffic, also misdirects our resources and focus away from congested air traffic control facilities,” he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board in recent months has stepped up its review of controller staffing, performance and fatigue issues.

The Reuters news service, citing FAA statistics, reported that suspected controller errors in 2010 hit 1,887, up from 1,233 the previous year. More than half were considered relatively minor, but reports in the most severe category rose to 43 from 37, FAA figures show.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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