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I-Team: Unmanned Control Towers

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MIAMI (CBS4) —  He was the lone person on duty at Reagan International Airport, in Washington D.C.,  when a plane, coming in from Miami, was ready to land. That plane did touch down safely without help from the controller.

CBS4 investigative reporter, Stephen Stock, who’s looked into this problem before, takes a closer look at an issue making national headlines and talks to a former air traffic controller.

Reagan National is the nation’s 26th busiest airport, with nearly 8 and half million passengers flying in and out every year.

But it’s not just the fact Reagan National is a major airport, but it’s close proximity to the Pentagon, the US Capitol and White House that had many wondering why–apparently– only one person was manning the control tower there Wednesday night.

Around midnight, American Airlines 7-37out of Miami  with 97 people on board was approaching Reagan National  but couldn’t  reach anyone in the control tower.

The pilot  finally reached  a regional controller 40 miles away.

Regional Controller, “America 1012, ah called a couple of time on a landline, and ah tried to call on commercial line, and there was no answer.”

American 1012 pilot, “They’re not answering on the line either.”

The only controller in the tower reportedly fell asleep.

The pilot of the American Airlines flight landed without assistance.

Moments later, a United  plane coming in from Chicago with 63 passengers on board encountered the same  problem.

Regional Controller: “United 628, just so you’re aware, we just had one  aircraft go into DCA and the ah, umm, tower is apparently unmanned. Called on the phone, and nobody’s answering, so that aircraft went in just as an uncontrolled airport.”

That plane also landed on its own.  Within minutes, the missing controller turned up.

Rob Misick said, ” The FAA is all about the bottom line. Safety takes a back seat.”

Rob Misick served as an air traffic controller for nearly two decades in South Florida. He’s written a critical book on the FAA and its safety culture in air traffic controller towers that’s scheduled to be published later this year.

Rob Misick said, “Like all other facilities especially the larger ones, they’re understaffed.

Misick isn’t the only critic to say the FAA is pushing air traffic controllers, pilots and the system too hard.

In fact, last year errors by air traffic controllers increased 51 percent nationwide.

A CBS4 I-Team investigation uncovered a disturbing rise in close calls between airplanes in the air and on the ground.

And another I-Team investigation discovered 1,011 incidents where pilot fatigue caused a safety concern or an actual crash. 689 of them happened in the last five years (2005-2009).

Rob Misick: “In this situation if had there been a car or something on the runway this would have been a huge disaster.”

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood immediately ordered that a second controller to the midnight shift at Reagan National.

And FAA administrator Randy Babbitt said the air traffic controller involved in this incident has been suspended and that he’s personally outraged by what happened.

But critics say it is the FAA, not a single air traffic controller that is at fault here.

The critics say too few people are being pushed too far, and they say the culture must change or the next time a lot of lives could be lost.

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