MIAMI (CBS4) — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered two air traffic controllers be on duty at Reagan National Airport late at night following an incident in which two airliners, one of them from Miami, landed without tower clearance because they couldn’t reach the lone controller who had fallen asleep on the job.
LaHood said in a statement he has also ordered the Federal Aviation Administration administrator to study tower staffing at other airports around the country.
An aviation official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the incident, said the controller had fallen asleep.
First it was American Airlines flight 1012 from Miami to Washington D.C. which couldn’t reach anyone in the tower. The pilot finally reached a controller at a regional FAA facility about 40 miles away.
According to air traffic recordings, the Potomac Controller said, “American 1012, AH called a couple of times on a landline, and AH tried to call on a commercial line, and there was no answer.” The American Airlines pilot replied, “They’re not answering on the line either.”
The pilot of the American Airlines flight landed without assistance.
Moments later, a United Airlines plane carrying 63 passengers encountered the same problem.
According to air traffic recordings, the Potomac Controller said, “United 628, just so you are aware, we just had one aircraft go into DCA and the 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.
The FAA has been ordered to add a second controller to the midnight shift at Reagan, which is just miles from the White House, Capitol and Pentagon.
Following this incident, LaHood said, “It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space.”
Aviation expert Mark Weiss says pilots have to be prepared for anything but he’s never heard of a controller falling asleep.
“It’s so unusual, in the 20 plus years that I flew for the airline I did, it’s never happened,” said Weiss.
Experts say the tower is not only needed to help pilots land, controllers also help planes navigate the tarmac and get to the proper gate.