Video: Air controllers fall asleep, ATC chief takes the fall

  1. Closed captioning of: Air controllers fall asleep, ATC chief takes the fall

    >> good evening, we have now told you about five instances of air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job during their shift in the tower. over the past few weeks alope. in some cases while aircraft circled, waiting to land, and then landed anyway. tonight, the consequences. a big head has rolled, and more changes are coming. the faa has already ordered that no tower should have just one controller anymore, and snow they're sending more out into the field. and just today, the head of the faa 's air traffic control operations is out of a job. tonight, we begin with tom costello at reagan national airport in washington where one of the controllers was found sleeping just three weeks ago. good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening to you. sources say thed of the faa air traffic control operations had lost the confidence of senior government leaders. alt least six individuals are accused of sleeping on the joberjob, behavior the faa says must end immediately. after three weeks of reports of controllers alidgedly sleeping on the job , the man who ran the air traffic control operation, hank crucowsky today lost his job.

    >> what happened ing the control towers with controllers sleeping is outrageous. it's the kind of behavior we will not tolerate at the faa .

    >> reporter: it all started last month when two passenger planes had to land on their own add at ragen national airport as a controller slept. rand rand y babbit was furious.

    >> as a former pilot, i'm outraged.

    >> sense then, more cases rng in knoxville, in lubbock, outside of seattle, and yesterday's case of a medevac plane unable to wake a controller in reno.

    >> we have a sick patient. we may just have to land.

    >> reporter: after circling for 16 minutes, he did land on his own. safety controllers and leaders say they're constantly changing schedules and are fatigued on the job. they have hardly enough time to decompress and sleep. now the faa and the union say it may be time for a change .

    >> we're going to work together claberately to look at schedules to mitigate fatigue.

    >> this comeses as investigators look at the 737 that made an emergency lanning this month with a hole in its roof and a 90 jet that sidesweptd a building at jfk, but today, they assure us the skies are safe.

    >> i believe we have the safest aviation system in the wurblgd but we can always make improvements.

    >> reporter: 9 million takeoffs and landings each year, and the last deadly accident involving a commercial airliner was more than two years ago. beginning monday, faa chief and union president will be going to towers around the country, re-enforcing the message of what is expected in the tower.

NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 4/14/2011 7:25:16 PM ET 2011-04-14T23:25:16

The head of the organization that oversees the nation's air traffic control system has resigned following recent reports of controllers sleeping on the job.

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Hank Krakowski, chief operating officer of the Air Traffic Organization, will step down. The job will be temporarily filled by David Grizzle, the Federal Aviation Administration's chief counsel, while a nationwide search is conducted to permanently fill the position.

"Over the last few weeks we have seen examples of unprofessional conduct on the part of a few individuals that have rightly caused the traveling public to question our ability to ensure their safety," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt in a statement. "This conduct must stop immediately."

FAA officials announced Wednesday that a second overnight air traffic controller would be added to the midnight shift at more than two dozen airports around the country, following the latest report of a medical flight that landed unassisted in Reno, Nevada, while the controller dozed.

The arrival at 2 a.m. Wednesday at Reno-Tahoe International Airport followed several other recent incidents of controllers dozing on their shifts.

The FAA said the controller was out of communication for about 16 minutes when the aircraft carrying at least three people was landing. No injuries were reported.

Pilot forced to circle Reno airport
Radio communications between the medical flight and radar controllers trying to get ahold of a sleeping Nevada air traffic controller show the pilot circled several times before saying he'd have to land the plane unaided.

In the audio provided Thursday by LiveATC.net, the pilot of the turboprop plane told a FAA controller in northern California he had a sick patient on board and couldn't wait to land. The controller said the Reno tower wasn't answering radio or phone calls.

The pilot and controller aren't identified on the audio.

"This is absolutely unacceptable," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "The American public trusts us to run a safe system. Safety is our No. 1 priority and I am committed to working 24/7 until these problems are corrected."

It was the second case this week of a controller being suspended for sleeping on the job. A controller at Boeing Field-King County International in Seattle fell asleep during his morning shift on Monday and was suspended, FAA said. He was already facing disciplinary action for sleeping on two separate occasions during an early evening shift in January, the agency said.

The latest cases follow three previously disclosed incidents in which controllers have been suspended, including two episodes of controllers sleeping on duty.

Safety on the line
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has warned against putting controllers alone on shifts and assigning tiring work schedules.

At most airport towers, there's no bathroom in the cab — the room on the top of the tower. With only one controller on duty, the position has to go unattended at times if the controller needs to use a bathroom. It's common for the nearest bathroom to be located down a flight of stairs from the cab.

Two controllers at the airport in Lubbock, Texas, were suspended for an incident in the early morning hours of March 29, the agency said. In that instance, a controller in Fort Worth had to try repeatedly to raise the Lubsbock controllers in order to hand off control of an inbound aircraft. The controllers also failed to hand off a plane departing Lubbock to the Fort Worth radar center, FAA said.

Babbitt and Paul Rinaldi, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents FAA's more than 15,000 controllers, will be visiting airports and radar facilities around the country next week "to reinforce the need for all air traffic personnel to adhere to the highest professional standards," FAA said in a statement.

The FAA last month put two controllers on duty during the midnight shift at the Reno-Tahoe airport but went back to one controller several days later after implementing new procedures, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said. Reno is one of the airports that will now get a second controller.

Airport chief Krys Bart said the pilot of the medical flight — a Piper Cheyenne with seating for five — and airport staff had tried to contact the controller multiple times without success. The FAA said the pilot was in contact with regional radar controllers in northern California during the landing.

"The pilot evaluated the airfield. The weather was clear. The aircraft did land without incident," Bart said.

It was not immediately clear where the flight was coming from.

Affected airports
The incidents come nearly five years after a fatal crash in Kentucky in which a controller was working alone. Investigators said the controller in Kentucky was most likely suffering from fatigue, although they placed responsibility for the crash that took 49 lives on the pilots.

The new disclosures drew rebukes from the chairmen of the Senate and House committees that oversees FAA's budget.

"I just got off the phone with the FAA and told the administrator that I am sick of this," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

But Rep. John Mica, D-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, objected to adding more controllers at airports where nighttime traffic is light.

"Only in the federal government would you double up on workers, averaging $161,000 per year in salary and benefits, that aren't doing their job," Mica said in a statement. "This staffing increase misdirects our resources and focus away from congested air traffic control facilities," he said.

FAA said the airport towers where a second controller will be added to the midnight shift are Akron-Canton, Ohio; Allegheny, Pa.; Andrews Air Force Base, Md.; Burbank, Calif.; Duluth, Minn.; DuPage, Ill., Fargo, N.D.; two airports in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Ft. Worth Meacham, Texas; Grant County, Wash.; Kansas City, Mo.; Manchester, N.H.; Omaha, Neb.; Ontario, Calif.; Reno-Tahoe, Nev.; Richmond, Va.; Sacramento, Calif.; San Diego, Calif.; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Terre Haute, Ind.; Teterboro, N.J.; Tucson, Ariz.; Willow Run, Mich.; Windsor Locks, Conn., and Youngstown, Ohio. A second nighttime controller was also added at an approach control facility in Omaha.

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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