A Nevada air traffic controller allegedly fell asleep early Wednesday as a medical flight carrying a sick patient tried to land, leading federal authorities to order an immediate end to the practice of leaving one controller on duty during overnight shifts.

The plane landed safely at Reno-Tahoe International Airport with the help of a radar controller based in California, the Federal Aviation Administration said. The Reno controller was suspended, and the FAA is investigating why there were 16 minutes of silence as the medical flight sought to land.

The air traffic control system has come under scrutiny by the National Transportation Safety Board and Congress after a year in which the number of operational errors recorded by controllers increased by 51 percent. Those errors were failures to keep aircraft at a safe distance while in flight.

The incident Wednesday was the fifth time this year that a controller apparently slept while on duty.

A controller supervisor was suspended last month after he admitted to napping in the tower at Reagan National Airport, which serves Washington, D.C. The FAA has taken steps to fire a Knoxville, Tenn., radar controller who allegedly used a makeshift bed to sleep while on duty in February.

It is routine for controllers to work a compressed workweek that includes two evening shifts, a quick turnaround to a pair of day shifts and another quick turnaround to a midnight shift, all separated by eight- to 10-hour intervals. That allows them a three- to four-day weekend.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood responded to the latest event by ordering a second overnight controller into the 27 towers that still have one controller on duty on those shifts.

“I am totally outraged by these incidents,” LaHood said in a statement. “This is absolutely unacceptable.”

FAA Administrator Randolph Babbitt said he would take top FAA officials and leaders of the controllers union on a tour of the nation’s air traffic control facilities next week to “reinforce the need for all air traffic personnel to adhere to the highest professional standards.”

Members of the House transportation committee said they planned to hold a private meeting with FAA leaders Thursday to discuss controller errors and incidents of sleeping on the job.

 


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