A napping air traffic controller who forced a medical flight to land unaided in Nevada brought swift reaction from the Federal Aviation Administration, which on Wednesday added a second overnight controller at 26 airports, including two airports in Fort Lauderdale, and a radar facility.
The move came after several other recent incidents of controllers sleeping during their shifts.
The controller at Reno-Tahoe International Airport was out of communication for about 16 minutes when the aircraft carrying at least three people was landing about 2 a.m. Wednesday, the FAA said. No injuries were reported.
"This is absolutely unacceptable," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "The American public trusts us to run a safe system. Safety is our No. 1 priority, and I am committed to working 24/7 until these problems are corrected."
It was the second case this week of a controller being suspended for sleeping on the job. A controller at Boeing Field-King County International in Seattle fell asleep during his morning shift Monday and was suspended, the FAA said. He was already facing disciplinary action for sleeping on two separate occasions during an early evening shift in January, the agency said.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has warned against putting controllers alone on shifts and assigning tiring work schedules. At most towers, there's no restroom in the cab — the room on the top of the tower. With only one controller on duty, the position has to go unattended at times if the controller needs to use a restroom. It's common for the nearest one to be down a flight of stairs from the cab.
Two controllers at the airport in Lubbock, Texas, were suspended for an incident in the early morning hours of March 29, the agency said. In that instance, a controller in Fort Worth had to try repeatedly to raise the Lubbock controllers in order to hand off control of an inbound aircraft. The controllers also failed to hand off a plane departing Lubbock to the Fort Worth radar center, FAA said.
The latest cases follow three previously disclosed incidents in which controllers have been suspended, including two episodes of controllers sleeping on duty.
The FAA last month put two controllers on duty during the midnight shift at the Reno-Tahoe airport but went back to one controller several days later after implementing new procedures, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said. Reno is one of the airports that will now get a second controller.