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NATCA: Front-line controller needed in DCA tower

The air traffic controllers union says it supports the US Transportation Department's move to a "front-line controller" for the midnight shift at Washington National airport.

The action came after revelations on 23 March that the air traffic control tower at the airport was unstaffed while several inbound flights arrived at the airport early that morning.

An American Airlines flight performed a go-around after pilots were unable to reach the tower by radio just before landing.

Both the American Boeing 737 and a United Airbus A320 ultimately landed at the airport using see-and-avoid techniques with assistance from controllers at the Potomac consolidated terminal radar approach control (tracon) in Virginia during a 10-15min period just after midnight.

"During the incident at DCA on the midnight shift Wednesday morning, there was one FAA supervisor on duty, instead of a front-line controller. This was an FAA management supervisor, not a front-line controller," says National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) president Paul Rinaldi. "We applaud Transportation Secretary LaHood for quickly moving to put safety first and fix the situation at [Washington National] yesterday by ordering additional staffing - a front-line controller - on the midnight shift, which took effect last night."

The union, which does not include FAA supervisors, also complimented LaHood for asking the FAA to launch a study of staffing levels at airports nationwide. "Wednesday's incident clearly shows the need for an urgent, comprehensive, nationwide staffing study," says Rinaldi.

FAA administrator Randy Babbitt also issued a statement on 24 March, saying the FAA "is thoroughly investigating" the incident.

"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 travelling public." says Babbitt. "As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes, Fortunately, 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."

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