US & Canada

'Sleeping' US air traffic controller suspended

File photo of Reagan National Airport
Image caption Reagan National Airport is just across the Potomac River from the White House and the US Capitol

An air traffic controller who was unavailable to help two jets land at a busy Washington DC airport has been suspended, an official has said.

The planes landed safely, despite being unable to make contact with the control tower early on Wednesday.

The lone nighttime controller at Reagan National Airport told officials he had fallen asleep.

In response, regulators have ordered that two controllers be on duty on the midnight shift.

The jets carried a total of 165 people.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident, said the controller who fell asleep during his shift had 20 years of experience on the job, including 17 at that airport.

The controller was on his fourth consecutive overnight shift, the board said.

The "air traffic control service interruption" lasted 24 minutes - from 0004 to 0028 local time (0424 to 0428 GMT).

On Thursday, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association warned: "One-person shifts are unsafe. Period."

The FAA has launched a national inquiry into tower staffing, officials said.

Fatigue concerns

Aviation officials told US media the overnight shift at the airport was typically manned by a single controller.

The jet pilots were unable to raise the airport control tower on the radio as they approached to land. The efforts of other controllers elsewhere to reach the tower by telephone failed as well.

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that in response he had directed the FAA to put two controllers on the midnight shift at Reagan National Airport.

Former National Transportation Safety Board member John Goglia told the Associated Press the incident raised troubling concerns about air traffic controller fatigue.

"It's worse when nothing is going on," he said.

"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."