The US FAA says it is assigning additional controllers on the midnight shifts at 27 air traffic control towers across the US following an incident this morning at the Reno-Tahoe International airport.
"A controller fell asleep while a medical flight carrying an ill patient was trying to land [at Reno]," says the FAA. "The medical flight pilot was in communication with the Northern California terminal radar approach control (Tracon) and landed safely. The [tower] controller, who was out of communication for approximately 16 minutes, has been suspended while the FAA investigates."
The episode follows several other high profile controller incidents, including a lone controller at the Washington National airport control tower who could not be reached by several incoming airline flights for a period of about 15 minutes just after midnight on 23 March. That controller has also been suspended pending the results of the FAA investigation.
The agency says it is investigating two additional incidents of "unresponsive" air traffic controllers over the past two weeks, findings that emerged from an ongoing review of staffing and scheduling for controllers, launched after the National incident.
Controllers in both cases have been suspended while the agency investigates.
A controller monitoring local traffic at the Boeing Field/King County airport in Washington State fell asleep during the morning shift of 11 April while two other controllers on duty in the airport tower cab worked arrivals and departures. "The controller is already facing disciplinary action for falling asleep on two separate occasions during the early shift on 6 January 2011," the FAA says.
On 29 March, two controllers working the midnight shift the Preston Smith International airport in Lubbock, Texas, "failed to hand off control of a departing aircraft to the Fort Worth air route traffic control centre (ARTCC)", says the FAA. "It also took repeated attempts for a controller at the Fort Worth ARTCC to reach the Lubbock controllers to hand off inbound aircraft."
"I am totally outraged by these incidents," says Department of Transportation secretary Ray LaHood. "This is absolutely unacceptable. The American public trusts us to run a safe system."
In addition to the additional staffing, FAA administrator Randy Babbitt and National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) president Paul Rinaldi have launched a nationwide "Call to Action" campaign for air traffic control safety and professionalism.
In addition to an independent review of the FAA's air traffic control training curriculum and qualifications, the Call to Action effort will include visits to air traffic facilities around the country "to reinforce the need for all air traffic personnel to adhere to the highest professional standards", says the FAA.