Video: New generation takes control of airways

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    >>> air traffic controllers are in the news this week after that scare caused by a sleeping supervisor at reagan national airport early wednesday morning. the faa said today it's changing procedures and reviewing staffing in the wake of that incident. it's put a spotlight on a changing workforce as nearly half the veteran controllers in the system are reaching retirement age. now there's a new generation taking over . here's nbc's tom costello.

    >> reporter: it's the daily choreography of pilots, planes and passengers, a scene repeated at 273 airports across the country every day. 35,000 flights, 1.7 million passengers. but to get here, you've got to start here.

    >> will extend downwind number 2 .

    >> reporter: at the air traffic control academy in oklahoma city .

    >> cheyenne alpha zero.

    >> reporter: where the faa is pushing through a huge class of new controllers.

    >> 17 romeo, radar contact.

    >> reporter: it was the summer of 1981 when president reagan fired more than 11,000 union or patco controllers who went on strike.

    >> they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.

    >> reporter: then hired replacement controllers to take over. now 30 years after the patco strike , those replacement controllers are retiring in large numbers, and a new wave of controllers is taking over in both control towers and at radar screens. today training involves sophisticated simulators that can lay out airport runways and traffic patterns in perfect gps detail.

    >> this runway here is runway 31.

    >> reporter: faa chief randy babbitt said no longer to controllers to have wait with real-life experience with congestion, snow or fog.

    >> every problem that we think a controller might face, we can set up and run the scenario.

    >> reporter: and near disasters too.

    >> academy tower, hold short.

    >> reporter: arlene perez is training to move from a radar room to the huntsville tower.

    >> you just need to be able to think on the fly and make decisions real quick.

    >> reporter: the academy takes up to 18 weeks, then months or years of on-the-job training.

    >> here you have to keep your head on pivot at all times. you've got to constantly be moving.

    >> reporter: and the faa is now training a thousand controllers every year, as a new generation takes control of the nation's skies. tom costello, nbc news, oklahoma city .

By
updated 4/6/2011 4:20:30 PM ET 2011-04-06T20:20:30

The Federal Aviation Administration gave air traffic controllers new procedures as officials try to contain the fallout from an incident earlier this week in which two airliners landed at Reagan National Airport without assistance because the lone controller on duty was asleep.

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Regional radar facilities are now required to alert controllers working alone at night in an airport tower that a plane is approaching, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement Friday. The radar controllers are "to confirm that there is a controller prepared to handle the incoming flight," he said.

Regional controllers have also been reminded that if no controller can be raised at an airport tower, proper procedures require they offer pilots the option of diverting to another airport, Babbitt said.

Controllers at a regional FAA radar facility in Warrenton, Virginia, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) from Reagan, did not offer that option to the pilots who were to unable reach the airport's tower between 12:04 and 12:28 a.m. on Wednesday.

Repeated phone calls from the regional facility to the tower also went unanswered.

The planes — an American Airlines flight from Dallas and a United Airlines flight from Chicago with a combined 165 people on board — landed safely.

Pilots can always decide on their own authority to divert to another airport, said Rory Kay, a former Air Line Pilots Association safety chairman and an international airline captain.

The controller on duty in the tower — a veteran air traffic supervisor — acknowledged to investigators who interviewed him Thursday that he had dozed off, the National Transportation Safety Board said. The controller, who has not been identified, was working his fourth 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift in a row, according the board, which is investigating the episode.

The incident has renewed concern about the potential safety consequences of controllers suffering from fatigue, a longstanding concern of the board.

It has also sparked criticism of the FAA's practice of scheduling a single controller on overnight shifts at some airports, but especially at Reagan, which is in Arlington, Virginia, and just across the Potomac River from downtown Washington.

"This is not a mom-and-pop airport for small planes, and is in the vicinity of some very sensitive airspace," Kay said.

At least one congressional committee has launched its own investigation, and the issue is expected to be raised next week when the House of Representatives takes up a bill to provide long term authority for FAA programs.

On Wednesday night, less than 24 hours after the incident, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered that a second controller be added to the overnight shift at Reagan

About 30 other airports around the country also have a single controller on duty on the overnight shift. In some instances, the controllers work alone for only a part of the shift.

The FAA is examining whether staffing on those overnight shifts should be increased.

On Friday, the safety board recommended to the FAA that it no longer allow air traffic controllers to provide supervisory oversight while performing operational air traffic duties. The recommendation wasn't directly related to this week's incident. But if the FAA were to follow the board's recommendation, the agency would effectively have to assign at least two people — a supervisor and a controller — to every shift.

In a previous letter to FAA, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman pointed to several previous airport accidents in which the air traffic supervisor on duty was also working as a controller directing air traffic instead of being free to devote attention entirely to the supervising of controllers.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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