Should jetliners be landing with only a single air traffic controller on duty — even if he's awake? Federal officials are grappling with that question following the safe landing of two jetliners this week with no help from the lone air traffic supervisor on duty at Washington's Reagan National Airport.
He's been suspended, and safety investigators say he has acknowledged he was asleep.
The incident comes nearly five years after a fatal crash in Kentucky in which a controller was working alone. Accident investigators said that controller was most likely suffering from fatigue, although they placed responsibility for the crash that took 49 lives on the pilots.
Still, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association warned at the time against putting controllers alone on shifts and assigning tiring work schedules.
The union's president, Paul Rinaldi, made the same point again on Thursday: "One-person shifts are unsafe. Period."
The Reagan National incident, around midnight Tuesday night, has sent administration officials scrambling to assure the public that safety isn't being compromised. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered an examination of controller staffing at airports across the nation, and he directed that two controllers staff the midnight shift in Washington from now on.
Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt said he was investigating the incident, but he also said that at "no point was either plane out of radar contact, and our back-up system kicked in to ensure the safe landing of both airplanes."
The National Transportation Safety Board has opened its own investigation, and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has added yet another investigation.
The issue is likely to land in Congress' lap next week when the House is expected take up a Republican-drafted bill that would cut $4 billion over four years from the FAA. The agency says it needs more money, not less.
A House bill already calls for a National Academy of Sciences study of controller staffing. A Senate-passed version of the bill also would require a study.
"The incident at Reagan National Airport is troubling and of great concern," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the senior Democrat on the transportation committee. "We must deal with the immediate safety and security concerns of this critical airspace."
Besides Reagan National, at least two other airports in the Washington region — in Richmond, Va., and at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland — are also staffed by a single controller overnight. Among other airports identified by the controllers' union as staffed by one controller overnight were San Diego International and Sacramento International in California, Tucson International in Arizona, Reno-Tahoe International in Nevada and Ft. Lauderdale Executive in Florida.
The Washington controller, who hasn't been identified, was on his fourth straight overnight shift, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., the NTSB said.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., cited this week's incident while pressing LaHood for an increase in the number of fully certified controllers assigned to the tower at Newark's Liberty International Airport. He said the airport is supposed to have 35 to 40 certified controllers, but its tower is currently staffed with 26 certified controllers and eight trainees.
"The last thing airline passengers should have to worry about is whether there is anyone working in the air traffic control tower below," Lautenberg said Thursday.
But some aviation safety experts say perhaps too much is being made of this week's incident.
"It's not outrageous for the agency to avoid putting a second six-figure employee into a tower where they may only work a dozen airplanes in a shift," said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation of Alexandria, Va., and a former air traffic controller.
The airport, in Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac River from Washington, typically has four to five scheduled landings between midnight and 6 a.m. plus a few unscheduled takeoffs or landings, FAA officials said.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the transportation committee chairman, called LaHood's decision to add a second controller to the midnight shift when there is so little traffic "a typical bureaucratic response."
Planes, including smaller airliners, land frequently at small airports where there are no towers and no controllers.
But Greg Elwood of Winchester, Va., who worked 29 years as a controller before retiring last October, said he feels FAA should have two controllers on duty for the same reason airlines put two pilots in cockpits when a single pilot is capable of flying the plane alone — it's a safety hedge against the unforeseen.
"For sure the work (on an overnight shift) is incredibly easy. It's really not work, you are more of a watchman so to speak," Elwood, 57, said in an interview.
But with a single controller on duty, he said, an airport tower goes unattended every time the controller leaves even to go to the bathroom.
"In the towers where I have worked, you had to walk down a flight of steps to go to the bathroom — there's no bathroom in the cab (tower workroom)," Elwood said. "It's like the cockpit of an airplane. It's a workplace."
The greatest risk to planes landing at night without controller assistance at a big airport like Washington's is that they might collide with equipment or maintenance workers since most runway maintenance work is performed overnight, Elwood said.
"That's when they're changing the light bulbs and patching the runway," he said. "A pilot can't see the whole runway at night."