Sleeping Washington DC air traffic controller sparks controversy

Last week, air traffic safety in the USA came under increased scrutiny when two passenger jets landed without any controller assistance at Reagan National Airport because they could not reach the airport tower. Apparently, the only air traffic controller on duty was asleep.

Hence, the pilots of the two planes had to stay in contact with air traffic controllers at a regional Federal Aviation Administration facility located about 40 miles away. Nevertheless and while the planes landed safely, the incident has sparked considerable controversy and calls for a minimum of two air traffic controllers to be on duty for the midnight shift at an airport that is only a short drive away from the White House and the Pentagon.

Naturally, plenty of aviation and pilot bloggers over the past week have had time to write their thoughts about the incident. Terry Maxon of the Airline Biz Blog has posted a timeline from the NTSB detailing the incident. He also summarized in another post the statement issued by FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt regarding the suspension of the controller on duty plus he suggested checking out recent stories that have appeared in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post about the incident. David Parker Brown has also noted the incident on his AirlineReporter blog and the story he wrote for AOL Travel News with quotes from an airline pilot, the FAA, United Airlines and others about what happened. In addition, Sylvia, the blogger behind Fear of Flying, also has a great post summarizing the facts of the incident along with links to radio transmissions and other resources.

Meanwhile, Rob Mark, the blogger behind the JetWhine, blogger, defended the head of the FAA by writing:

Sure it’s embarrassing, but one controller on the midnight shift is also stupid precisely because of what occurred last week, not to mention that this could have been even uglier if a vehicle had run out on the runway when either of the two airliners landed. And Randy Babbitt knows it, because he’s not a bureaucrat … he’s a pilot who happens to have been chosen to run a bureaucracy that ranks almost dead last in terms of being a great place to work.

On the other hand, Vincent, the blogger behind the Plastic Pilot blog, was more critical of Bruce Babbit and wrote:

So, Mr. Babbitt, your outraged. And this is a a former airline pilot. This sounds to me like a lot of finger pointing during the early stages of an incident investigation. Could it be that you’re trying to divert attention. The controller feel asleep, is part of an agency, right?

And this agency had him working four night in a row, alone. In other parts of the world, so called “single man operation” (SMOP, for short) are not allowed. Human can fail, and they do.

He further noted that it is Babbit who bears ultimate responsibility for having a controller working alone in the tower in the first place.

Hence, we want to ask you our readers what you think of the this incident. Who is really to blame and can such an incident happen at a major airport in the UK or Europe?

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