Should snoozing controller at Reagan airport have had backup?

The US secretary of Transportation has asked airports to consider adding a second air-traffic controller to their overnight shifts. But one key congressman says that would be a waste of money.

Cliff Owen/AP
A passenger jet flies past the FAA control tower at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport, Thursday, March 24. Federal safety officials are investigating an incident in which two planes landed at the airport without control tower clearance because the air traffic controller was asleep.

After an air-traffic controller was suspended for falling asleep during an overnight shift at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, federal lawmakers and officials are debating the balance between adding more personnel to increase safety and the financial costs of doing so.

On Thursday, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood directed Reagan airport to add a second controller to its overnight shift and advised other airports with only one night controller to review their staffing policies.

That action was criticized by Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who called it “a typical bureaucratic response,” in a statement Thursday.

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Congressman Mica pledged to investigate the matter but noted there are few flights into Reagan airport during the night shift, and that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a policy of allocating staff to match air traffic. Adding another air-traffic controller, he said, goes against that policy.

The cost of adding another air-traffic controller to the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift would likely reach six figures per year in Washington, for example. Washington-area air-traffic controllers are the best-paid in the country, with a median hourly wage of $63.20, or $131,460 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s about $12 an hour more than the national median for air-traffic controllers.

Most midsize airports must have at least two air traffic controllers on duty at all times, because they are responsible for controlling local airport traffic as well as regional traffic within a 50-mile radius. Reagan airport is not subject to this FAA regulation, because a tower in Warrenton, Va., handles the regional traffic.

Some critics of the current policy say towers should be manned not only for safety, but also for national-security reasons that trump cost. Reagan airport is located in Arlington, Va., about four miles south of the White House.

“Because of where Reagan airport is – in a very sensitive national security area – that tower should have at least two people in it,” said Mike Pangia, a former FAA lawyer, in an interview with the Associated Press.

Mr. Pangia also noted that risk of human error is always present, and having two people helps prevent mistakes.

“We have two pilots in the cockpit because they are human beings, and you have to take that into account,” he said.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi agrees with that assessment, and issued a statement Thursday slamming one-controller staffing policies which called them “unsafe. Period.”

Though both planes which were forced to land without clearance Wednesday touched down safely, there have been crashes linked to one-person air-traffic control shifts. In August 2006, 49 people died when flight Comair Flight 191 tried to take off from the wrong runway in Lexington, Ky. The runway was too short, and the plane crashed before liftoff.

The air-traffic controller had instructed the crew to take off from the correct runway, but neither the controller nor the crew noticed when the plane lined up at the wrong runway. At the time, the controller was monitoring both takeoffs and landings, as well as air traffic around the airport, a job often done by two people, the the National Transportation Safety Board noted in its report on the crash.

Still, Mica thinks that resources would be better allocated if air-traffic staffing were given to times with high air traffic.

“In difficult financial times for the nation, it is critical that we utilize our limited resources in the most responsible fashion without compromising safety,” said Mica.

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