An air traffic supervisor has been suspended as the result of an incident in central Florida over the weekend in which a Southwest Airlines Co. jet and a small plane came too close together, putting both planes in danger, the Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday.

It is the second suspension in less than a week of an air traffic supervisor working as a controller. In the previous case, a supervisor — the lone controller on duty overnight — acknowledged falling asleep while two airliners landed without assistance at Reagan National Airport.

In the latest incident, a supervisor at the agency's radar facility in central Florida that handles airport approaches on Sunday asked the pilots of a Southwest Airlines flight for help determining the status of a private plane that had been out of radio contact for over an hour, FAA said in a statement.

The single-engine, four-seat Cirrus SR22 was on course for Kissimmee, Fla., and maintaining altitude at 11,000 feet, but had not responded to repeated contact attempts from controllers, the agency said.

Southwest Flight 821, a Boeing 737, was 10 miles behind the Cirrus at about 12,000 feet and heading for Orlando International Airport, the FAA said. The supervisor asked the Southwest crew whether they could visually check the cockpit of the Cirrus. The Southwest crew agreed, was directed toward the Cirrus and reported the aircraft in sight, the agency said.

Video: Air controller suspended for sleeping on job (on this page)

The Southwest pilots reported seeing two people in the cockpit, and then turned away, the FAA said. About 30 seconds later the Cirrus contacted controllers at a radar center in Jacksonville. Both planes landed safely at their destinations.

However, a preliminary investigation of the incident shows the planes came too close together in violation of FAA regulations, the agency said. FAA officials declined to say how close the planes were.

"By placing this passenger aircraft in close proximity to another plane, the air traffic controller compromised the safety of everyone involved. This incident was totally inappropriate," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said. "We are reviewing the air traffic procedures used here and making sure everyone understands the protocols for contacting unresponsive aircraft."

The Southwest plane, which originated in Phoenix, was carrying 137 passengers and five crew members, said Whitney Eichinger, a spokeswoman for the airline.

The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation into the incident, board spokesman Terry Williams said.

Story: Wake up! Sleeping tower operator spurs FAA policy shift

Last week, the NTSB sent the FAA a letter recommending against assigning supervisors to work as controllers at the same time they are supposed to be supervising controllers.

The two incidents indicate "the FAA needs to do a major self-assessment of how they're managing the air traffic control work force," said John Goglia, a former NTSB board member.

Under no circumstances would it be reasonable to bring a passenger airline close enough to a small plane that airline pilots could see into the cockpit, he said. The larger plane could have disrupted the air flow around the smaller, causing an accident, he said.

The incidents "do call into question the training that's given to supervisors and their thought processes," Goglia said.

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

Video: Air controller suspended for sleeping on job

  1. Closed captioning of: Air controller suspended for sleeping on job

    >> thanks. an air traffic control supervisor at reagan's airport has admitted he fell asleep while working the midnight shift which left two commercial airliners to land on their own. tom costello has the latest. good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning. the pentagon is only about a mile away. over my camera man's shoulder i can see the jefferson memorial , the washington monument , the white house , which is why people find it hard to believe that this control tower will be staffed with just a single controller even overnight.

    >> reporter: we now know the lone controller in the tower early wednesday morning at reagan international airport was, indeed, asleep as two commercial airliners were coming in for a landing.

    >> washington tower, american 1012 .

    >> reporter: for 30 minutes , no response. even when a nearby radar facility telephoned the tower. after an american and united pilot landed on their own, the controller apparently woke up and seemed to blame the silence on radio trouble.

    >> yeah, somebody had a stuck mic.

    >> reporter: the supervisor, a veteran controller, admitted he'd fallen asleep on his fourth consecutive overnight shift. the man who runses the f.a.a. isn't happy.

    >> i'm outraged. i have flown in this air space for 25 years as a pilot. i have never seen anything like this. that's why we are going to investigate and get to the bottom of it.

    >> reporter: nationwide, 30 airports have lone controllers on duty overnight when there is little or no traffic. reagan national sits within sight of the pentagon, white house and capitol hill . veteran controllers and the union have long argued at least two controllers should be in duty in any tower for safety reasons.

    >> it's nonnegotiable. the public should be outraged. every senator, congressman should be outraged.

    >> reporter: without radio contact richards believes the pilots never should have landed since they didn't know if there was ground traffic on the runway or a security problem. but a veteran pilot says they followed proper procedure. was there a danger to the passengers or crew?

    >> no. i think they were completely safe.

    >> reporter: the f.a.a. chief randy babbitt ordered investigation into the incident and the whole idea of lone controller staffing. meanwhile, i just received an e-mail from the ntsb which is now recommending that the f.a.a. prohibit air traffic controllers from serving as supervisors while also performing operational duties. back to you.

    >> tom costello with breaking news.


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