The Federal Aviation Administration suspended an air traffic supervisor at Ronald Reagan National Airport after two airliners landed without control tower clearance because the supervisor was asleep, said an official speaking on condition of anonymity.
The supervisor was the only controller scheduled for duty in the tower about midnight Tuesday when the incident occurred.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the supervisor has admitted falling asleep during what was his fourth consecutive overnight shift: 10 p.m.-6 a.m -- NBC Washington's Chris Gordon reported.
The supervisor has been in the field 20 years, 17 of them at National Airport.
The NTSB is gathering information on the occurrence to decide whether to open a formal investigation, spokesman Peter Knudson said.
The pilots of American Airlines flight 1012 and United Airlines flight 628T were unable to reach the tower, but they were in communication with a regional air traffic control facility in Warrenton, Va., about 40 miles from the airport, Knudson said. Controllers at the regional facility were unable to reach anyone at the airport tower by phone, safety officials said.
As they circled around the airport, the pilot explained the reason for the delayed landing, said NBC Washington's John Schriffen, who was on board one of the flights.
"The plane kept going back up; it circled back around," Schriffen said. "And then all of a sudden, the pilot gets over the loudspeaker and says, 'Sorry, folks, we can't land right now. I can't get in contact with the air traffic control tower. We're gonna keep circling until I get a response.'"
The Federal Aviation Administration released a statement saying, "The FAA is looking into staffing issues and whether existing procedures were followed appropriately."
Meanwhile, the supervisor has been suspended from all operational duties, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said.
"As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes," Babbitt said. "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."
As a result of the allegations, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood directed that two air traffic controllers be on duty at Reagan National Airport late at night. "It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space,'' he said.
He also ordered the FAA administrator to study tower staffing at other airports around the country, a statement read.
The head of the union that represents air traffic controllers praised LaHood's actions, saying changes in staffing are needed.
"One-person shifts are unsafe. Period," Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in a statement Thursday. He said the union has long been concerned about single controller shifts, citing a 2006 air crash in Lexington, Ky., in which a Comair regional airliner attempted a takeoff at night from the wrong runway. A single air traffic controller was on duty in the airport tower at the time.
"The administration inherited an unsafe policy of staffing to budget instead of putting safety first," Rinaldi said. "We fully support the administration's aggressive actions to change this policy."
For many years, air traffic at Reagan was severely restricted between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. to limit noise in surrounding communities, noted Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, an industry-funded group that promotes aviation safety.
Today there is more air traffic at night because jets are quieter, but there are still so few landings after midnight that it may be reasonable to have only one controller on duty, he said.
"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 Voss, a former air traffic controller.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency "is looking into staffing issues and whether existing procedures were followed appropriately."
It's unlikely the safety of the planes was at risk since the pilots would have used a radio frequency for the airport tower to advise nearby aircraft of their intention to land and to make sure that no other planes also intended to land at that time, aviation safety experts said. At that time of night, air traffic would have been light, they said.
Also, controllers at the regional facility, using radar, would have been able to advise the pilots of other nearby planes, experts said.
The primary risk would have been if there was equipment on the runway when the planes landed, they said.
But the incident raises serious questions about controller fatigue, a longstanding safety concern, said John Goglia, a former NTSB board member.
"You have to watch your schedules to make sure [controllers] have adequate rest," Goglia said. "It's worse when nothing is going on. When it's busy, you have to stay engaged. When it's quiet, all they have to be is a little bit tired and they'll fall asleep."
Aviation experts emphasized the unusual nature of the incident.
"I'm not sure that in all the years I've been flying airplanes that I can recall coming into a major airport and I couldn't get hold of a controller in the airport tower," said aviation safety consultant John Cox, who spent 35 years as an airline and corporate pilot.
However, according to the Washington Post, an air traffic controller at National got locked out of the tower just last year.
And planes, including smaller airliners, land all the time at small airports that don't have control towers or controllers to clear landings.