- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Aircraft carrying the first lady or vice president will receive a higher level of scrutiny from air traffic controllers following an aborted landing of a plane carrying Michelle Obama this week, the Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday.

From now on flights carrying Mrs. Obama or Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be handled by an air traffic supervisor rather than a controller, the agency said in a statement. The new rules apply to approaches and departures handled by a regional air traffic facility in Warrenton, Va., and takeoffs and landings at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George’s County, where the presidential fleet is based.

Flights with the president on board already were required to be handled by a supervisor.

Also on Wednesday, the National Transportation Safety Board said it has opened an investigation into the aborted landing Monday at Andrews of a plane carrying Mrs. Obama.

While aborted landings are not unusual, and Mrs. Obama apparently wasn’t in serious danger, the episode has become another embarrassment for the FAA. Agency officials have been struggling to calm public jitters about flying raised by nine suspensions of air traffic controllers and supervisors in recent weeks, including five for sleeping on the job.

The first disclosed case of a controller falling asleep on duty occurred March 23 at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The most recent suspension was this week when a controller at a regional radar facility near Cleveland was suspended for watching a movie on a DVD player when he was supposed to be monitoring air traffic. The FAA official in charge of the U.S. air traffic system resigned last week.

The incident involving the first lady and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, occurred at about 5 p.m. Monday when a Boeing 737 belonging to the Air National Guard, one of several guard planes used by the White House, came within about three miles of a massive C-17 cargo plane as they were approaching Andrews Air Force Base to land, according to the FAA and Maj. Michelle Lai, a spokeswoman for Andrews.

The FAA requires a minimum separation of five miles between two planes when the plane in the lead is as large as the 200-ton military cargo jet, in order to avoid dangerous wake turbulence that can severely affect the trailing aircraft.

Andrews’ civilian air traffic controllers initially ordered Mrs. Obama’s plane to conduct a series of turns to place it farther from the military jet. When that didn’t provide enough distance, controllers realized that there might not be enough time for the cargo plane to clear the Andrews runway before Mrs. Obama’s plane landed.

Controllers then directed the pilot of the 737 to execute a “go-around” — to stop descending and start climbing and circle the air field. A go-around is considered a type of aborted landing.

The required separation between the two planes “was compromised,” the NTSB said in a statement Wednesday.

The White House continued to refer questions about the incident to the FAA, although press secretary Jay Carney told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One with the president that he understood there was “no imminent danger for the first lady or Mrs. Biden or anyone else on the plane.” Mr. Carney said he had not spoken with the president about the incident.

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