U.S. aviation authorities Thursday suspended an air traffic controller suspected of falling asleep on the job and forcing two planes to land without guidance at Washington's Reagan National airport.
The pilots of the American Airlines Boeing 737 flight from Miami and the United Airlines Airbus 320 from Chicago, carrying a total of 165 passengers and crew, tried frantically to contact the control tower, but to no avail.
The American Airlines pilot contacted the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility 40 miles (64 kilometers) away in Virginia as he circled the airport after midnight on Wednesday trying to keep passengers calm.
"Is there a reason it's not manned?" the American Airlines pilot asks, according to a transcript published by The Washington Post.
"Well, I'm going to take a guess and say that the controller got locked out. I've heard of it happening before," the TRACON controller replies, after making repeated unanswered calls to the tower.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials quoted by the U.S. media said the controller, who was alone in the tower for the midnight to 6:00 am shift, had actually fallen asleep.
"The FAA is thoroughly investigating Wednesday's early morning incidents at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport's control tower," said a written statement from FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.
"While that is taking place, we have suspended the air traffic controller from all operational duties. I am determined to get to the bottom of this situation for the safety of the traveling public.
"As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes."
Although the planes landed safely after the pilots took matters into their own hands and followed emergency procedures, the incident raised concern, particularly occurring just a few miles from the White House and the Capitol.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued a statement directing the FAA "to place two air traffic controllers at Ronald Reagan Washington National airport's control tower on the midnight shift."
"It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space. I have also asked FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt to study staffing levels at other airports around the country," he said.
The incident comes after an FAA report in February showed an alarming jump between 2007 and 2010 in air-traffic errors, from 1,040 to 1,887, a rise of 81 percent.
As the transcript of the pilot's conversation suggested, it was not thought to be the first time either that the tower at Reagan National had gone silent.
On an earlier occasion about a year ago, the sole controller on duty reportedly left his swipe card inside while stepping away and was locked out.
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