The FAA control tower at Reagan National Airport is seen in Arlington, Wednesday, March 23, 2011. Federal safety officials are investigating a report that two planes landed at the airport without control tower clearance because the air traffic controller was asleep. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Wake up calls have been mandated for air traffic controllers working overnight shifts, the Federal Aviation Association said at the end of this week.
The airport safety agency rolled out new rules for personnel who coordinate the country's air traffic, after a controller failed to answer the calls of two arriving airplanes in Washington D.C. on Wednesday morning.
The supervisor in charge of the tower, a 20 year veteran, admitted to having fallen asleep. He was working his regulaly scheduled solo shift that evening.
According to new rules, during overnight shifts, regional radar facilities are required to give a heads-up call to air traffic control towers when planes arrive in their air space. The calls will allow the regional facilities to "confirm that there is a controller prepared to handle the incoming flight," FAA administrator Randy Babbit said in a statement.
If, like on Wednesday morning, the airport tower does not answer, regional coordinators can give pilots options to divert to other airports. In the case of the two flights that landed Wednesday morning at Reagan National without the tower's assistance, no option was offered to either crew to divert to a different airport. The FAA says that was a mistake.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered Reagan National to place two people on duty for the overnight shift, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., when the Wednesday incident occured. The airport's regular practice was to schedule one person on the overnight. Around the country, 30 airports have overnight shifts staffed at least part of the time by a single controller.
"This is not a mom-and-pop airport for small planes, and is in the vicinity of some very sensitive airspace," Rory Kay, an airline captain, told the Associated Press.
American Airlines flight 1012 and United Airlines flight 628T both circled the airport on Wednesday, trying in vain to contact the tower before landing on their own.
NBC4's John Schriffen was on board one of those flights. Schriffen said about the flight, "All of the sudden, the pilot gets over the loudspeaker and says, 'sorry folks, we can't land right now. I can't get in touch with the air traffic control tower.'"
Note on Editorial Errors: In the original article, Mr. Rory Kay was misidentified as safety commissioner of the Air Line Pilots Association, and had not expressed "outrage" as first written.