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Sleeping Air Traffic Supervisor ‘Probed’

From an always wide awake Associated Press:

NTSB probing sleeping air traffic supervisor

By Joan Lowy, Associated Press Mar 23, 2011

WASHINGTON – Two airliners landed at Reagan National Airport near Washington without control tower clearance because the air traffic supervisor was asleep, safety and aviation officials said Wednesday.

The supervisor — the only controller scheduled for duty in the tower around midnight Tuesday when incident occurred — had fallen asleep, said an aviation official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the incident.

The National Transportation Safety Board is gathering information on the occurrence to decide whether to open a formal investigation, board spokesman Peter Knudson said.

What do you think President Reagan would have done to this air traffic controller?

The pilots of the two commercial planes were unable to reach the tower, but they were in communication with a regional air traffic control facility, Knudson said. That facility is in Warrenton, Va., about 40 miles from the airport…

After pilots were unable to raise the airport tower by radio, they asked controllers in Warrenton to call the tower, Knudson said. Repeated calls to the tower went unanswered, he said.

The planes involved were American Airlines flight 1012 and United Airlines flight 628T, Knudson said…

If there were any sacred Congressmen on these flights or anyone from their staffs – then surely heads will roll.

[T]he incident raises serious questions about controller fatigue, a longstanding safety concern, said John Goglia, a former NTSB board member.

‘Union! Union!’

"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."

When is Reagan National ever quiet?

By the way, Department Of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has announced he is going to direct that there are two controllers on the midnight shift at Reagan National from now on. So they seem to be punishing this sleeping air traffic controller by cutting his workload in half.

This article was posted by Steve on Thursday, March 24th, 2011. Comments are currently closed.

36 Responses to “Sleeping Air Traffic Supervisor ‘Probed’”

  1. Right of the People says:

    One of the dumber rules for hiring air traffic controllers is they will not hire anyone over the age of 35. On the surface this seems to make a lot of sense since it can be an extremely high stress job and if someone is a rookie the older they are the less stress they can handle.

    However. And it is a big however because this stupid rule cuts out hiring retiring Air Force personnel who if they put in 20 years will be at the youngest 37 or 38 but on the upside they will have 18-19 years experience. Which would you rather have, a twenty four year old with a few months on the job or a 38 year old that has been doing it for nearly twenty years? I’ll take the older one any day. I hate flying to begin with and I’d feel a lot better about it if I knew there were responsible adults running the tower.

    As far as this person is concerned, unless there are some extremely mitigating circumstances he should be shown the door. Of course since he is a public service union member, that will never happen.

    • Rusty Shackleford says:

      From another standpoint, the pilots who landed are in violation as well. If unable to get clearance to land, they are required to go to an alternate, not take matters into their own hands and just land because they felt like it. Mitigating circumstances for the pilots would be an emergency or critical fuel situation. They apparently had neither and thus should have gone to an alternate. Yes, it would have inconvenienced the passengers…but….the responsibility for allowing an aircraft to land on a controlled runway rests with ATC, not the pilot. Especially in darkness hours. For example, let’s take another scenario, the ATC controller had a heart attack and is incapacitated. Meanwhile, the active runway has a disabled vehicle on it…the electrical system quit and it has no lights on it. Pilot decides to land anyway and clobbers said vehicle, tumbles and burns and passengers die. Pilot is then at fault for not obtaining proper clearance. So there should be two more investigations.

      I’m not exonerating the controller but the pilots who elected to land are in heap-big-doo-doo as well. Also, given the new security structure, post 9/11, it’s a serious security violation.

    • atcpr says:

      The sleeping controller is not part of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The sleeping controller is a supervisor. This controller falls under management in union-management labor relations. There is also a program, known as the Phoenix 20 program, that hires retired military controllers. I agree that the age restriction for employment should be changed, as does the evil controllers union. By the way, the age restriction for employment in the FAA as an Air Traffic Control Specialist, Series 2152 is 31, not 35.

    • atcpr says:

      Also, the age requirement to be hired by the FAA as an Air Traffic Control Specialist, Series 2152 is 31, not 35.

  2. atcpr says:

    The controller in question is a supervisor. This controller is not a day-to-day controller. Rules established at that facility under the direction of higher headquarters decided to have a supervisor working in the tower during mid shifts instead of a regular “grunt” controller. Normally, he/she supervises the controllers and acts as a front line manager for daily operations. The union controllers were not involved. However someone feels about unions, the controllers union is the biggest advocate for safety of all players. The controllers union has been pushing for changes based on controller fatigue and facility staffing for years. Every large organization has individuals who are not the best, so before people bring up controllers doing this or that or the years, I urge you to look at the efforts of the controllers union as a whole before making derogatory statements. Unlike other unions, the controllers union senior leadership are controllers that go back to their facilities after they serve in the elected position.

  3. proreason says:

    Don’t our ever vigilant Make Believe Reporters always tell us when an evil-doer is white and/or a suspected Tea-Partier?

    We’ll be able to figure it out when the punishment is meted out.

  4. GetBackJack says:

    NTSB probing sleeping air traffic supervisor

    Ow. Owowowowow.

    My doctor usually makes sure I’m awake for such procedures …..

  5. TerryAnne says:

    Makes me “so happy” to hear about this (heard about it two nights ago on our local news). I live about 15 minutes (traffic light wise) from this airport, so the planes are close to my high-rise apartment building. Granted, the flight path doesn’t cross my building (it’s over the water, mainly), but nighttime and sleeping controllers…

  6. Kytross says:

    There should always be two controllers on a shift. This controller holds the lives of hundreds of people in his hands every night, possibly thousands depending on traffic. There should be another controller there to back him up. What if he did have a medical emergency or an accident of some kind?

    It was wrong of him to fall asleep.

  7. DW says:

    Ummm…maybe we all oughtta take a sniff here…because this whole story is definitely NOT passing the smell test.

    First off -a major hub like Reagan International and there are no controllers on duty -just one supervisor ???
    Not to mention that no union in the known universe would stand for having a supervisor doing an hourly worker’s job.

    Plus, a busy airport with only one person minding the store (if this, in fact, was the case) and he fell asleep ???!
    Balls. If anything, some poor bastard in that situation would have overloaded and had an aneurism.

    I dislike unions as much -if not more (I am forced to belong to one) than anyone else here, but this story -as is- simply does not compute.

    And TerryAnne: Please… unless the pilot’s name is Mohammed Atta, no pilot is going to fly into your building regardless of what the air traffic controllers are doing.

    • TerryAnne says:

      Bad. Bad.

      LOL! ;)

    • atcpr says:

      Try reading my posts that are above. It does pass the smell test. It is only one supervisor, as directed by facility directive and high headquarters. Anytime something serious occurs that threatens that important area, a supervisor must be present to coordinate the work that the controllers are doing. They (upper management) assume that a supervisor is only needed just in case one of this extraordinary things happens. Basically, pay only the supervisor to be there because it is cheaper. Once again, please read my posts above to get a better understanding before you dip into union conspiracy land.

    • DW says:

      Please understand that I was not dissing your posts. Judging from your screen name (“atc”) you probably have considerable perspective to add to this discussion.
      Me personally, I have roughly 13 hours dual instruction -mostly in a Piper Warrior and all of that waaaay back, long before 9/11.
      So I have a little bit of insight into atc procedures. Not anough to actually know anything, but enough to show my ass.
      Point being – lay it out in smple terms that we can all understand please.

      The way the article presents it, it suggests that those two airline pilots had no response at all on their radios and simply landed their planes on their own authority.
      I frankly doubt that happened (though I could be wrong).

      So who was controlling them?
      From where?
      Where does this sleepy supervisor fit into this?

  8. canary says:

    did the video watcher to watch the controller room fall asleep too? One controller supervisor or not?
    And no alternate contact number at Reagan airport for pilots to call when this happened.

    Good thing for the pilots that a terrorist hadn’t taken over the controller room.

    I sure hope Obama’s AF1 pilots and body guards are unionized and double staffed.

    I worry so for those poor exhausted overworked servants. One mistake could make them loose their job.

    • atcpr says:

      DCA Airport is tower only. The radar controllers that cover that area are out of what is known as a TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) which is not located on the airport. The controller that the pilots were talking to is the radar controller who would “hand off” those aircraft to the tower controller. Pilots don’t bust out there cell phones to call the tower as you suggest. The TRACON controllers were the ones blowing up the phones in the DCA Tower, which utimately woke him up. The controller in the tower did fall asleep. The controller in the tower was a supervisor. A supervisor in the FAA air traffic control world is not a member of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. A supervisor is management. Terrorists are not getting into towers or radar rooms. They are well guarded, especially DCA.

    • canary says:

      atcpr/ “Pilots don’t bust out there cell phones to call the tower as you suggest. The TRACON controllers were the ones blowing up the phones in the DCA Tower”

      I never suggested or dreamed pilots would bust out there or their cell phones to call the tower. I thought they had a better back up.
      Wow. The controllers were blowing up the phones in the DCA Tower. Wow. Thanks for the info.

  9. atcpr says:


    At many airports you have a tower that is staffed by controllers and supervised by management. Some towers also have RADAR, which means they have more controllers staring at radar scopes downstairs while the tower controllers stare out of the windows upstairs. In addition, many airports that have towers do not have RADAR and are serviced by another, larger airport that has radar coverage or, in the case of DCA, gets their radar coverage from a large building that only does RADAR over a wide area (more area than you could drive in a day in some cases).

    The controllers you heard talking to pilots on the news are operating out of one of these regional radar sites, since DCA has no radar controllers. After the radar controllers could not get the tower controller (did I mention this controller was not part of the controllers union yet! lol), the pilots decided to land using uncontrolled ariport procedures as outlined in the AIM, which you should be familiar with as a student pilot. The “sleepy supervisor” in this instance IS the tower controller. He/She was the only person in the tower. Procedures outlined by management, which were fought by the controllers union in the interest of air safety, prescribe that DCA is manned by a supervisor during the mid shift. The reason why its a supervisor and not an everyday controller is not information that I will not give other than the supervisor is needed to coordinate with other people in certain situations and to save money they decide, “well, lets just put a supervisor up there during the mid that way we don’t have to pay an everyday union controller.”

    By the way, the managment types in ATC make tons of money and rarely talk to airplanes like I do for about 25 dollars an hour. Some controllers make lots of money but they work in outrageously busy places and earn that money. I got a buddy who makes roughly 300K a year selling knees to doctors to put in old people. I think that is great that he can make money hustling for a sale. Why do people complain that a controller makes 140K talking to more airplanes at once they you can imagine and doing a great service for the country?

    • BigOil says:

      No need to be defensive atc. Nobody here has argued a controller does not earn their 140k salary.

      I am curious why you think air traffic controllers should even be unionized? In what way does it further the public interest? Also, could you tell us what percentage of your union dues are funneled to Democrats?

    • DW says:


      Thanks for the response.
      I’d love to hear copies of the radio transmissions that night.
      I’ll do some digging on my own (I should be doing that anyway before commenting) to try and get a better picture of Washington airspace/ATC staffing, etc.
      As BigOil states, you guys no doubt earn your salaries.
      Stay frosty.

  10. Liberals Demise says:

    I am curious why you think air traffic controllers should even be unionized? In what way does it further the public interest? Also, could you tell us what percentage of your union dues are funneled to Democrats?
    Fat chance……..when pigs fly!

  11. wirenut says:

    Union or non-union, staff or management, who the heck cares? Something broke, and it needs to be fixed. Stop the finger pointing and let’s get to the problem. As stated above by previous posts, leads to some further questions.
    #1 Why and how did two flights land on an “uncontrolled airport” without incident?
    I don’t fly much, and the most I’ve ever piloted, after my “real job”, is a lazy-boy recliner. Even so, there are procedures to follow for everything.
    #2 Who or how did the authority come to land those flights? Pilot discretion? Procedures, just a gut feeling?
    When putting money ahead of people’s lives, I smell a rat, a large bungling governmental rat.

    • atcpr says:

      1.) Landings at uncontrolled airports procedures are outlined in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM). This publication is basically the student pilot handbook on how to fly and operate in the NationaL Airspace System (NAS). You can google search the document pretty easily if you want to see some cool stuff (cool IMO anyway :))

      2.) As Rusty Shackleford said way up at the top of the comments, the pilots are also in trouble because they should have aborted landing at DCA and went to an alternate because of controlled airport procedures. His example as to why is very good.

      You’re right! Some people are putting money ahead of lives in the FAA. It is not the controllers or the controllers union. In fact, it is the opposite.

    • atcpr says:

      I just re-read your post and saw you say that you have a “real job.” I have been nothing but polite in my comments thus far, but that comment does bother me. Most people that train to be controllers do not make it. Roughly 70 percent get shown the door because the apptitude for ATC is very specific. Go and listen to (google search) liveatc and listen to the controllers that work at, lets say, Atlanta Approach or Tower, and tell me controllers don’t have a real job.

  12. atcpr says:

    Okay…I will reply to each of the comments that came after my most recent one. They actually tie in together.

    The reason I bring up that it was a supervisor and not a union controller is to highlight that in this situation, where there is a complete derelection of duty by a federal employee, many will be quick to come to the conclusion that a union member was involved because unions in the federal governement are unnecessary and counter productive. However, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (the union) has been the one organization that has been trying to shed light on the problem of fatigue and staffing.

    As to why I believe the controllers need a union…

    There are many in the FAA management ranks that view controllers as an entry level position. Many people that are promoted to the supervisory positions actually are poor controllers that barely certified or people who have been dying to be in charge. There are those that are natural leaders and excellent controllers that become supervisors and they are considered gold to be cherished but not publicly traded…lol

    Upper management has been pushing what is known as “Nex Gen” ATC, which is a complete modernization of the ATC structure. Some of the facets of which are fully supported by the union, but others are pie in the sky ideas that actually try to computerize most of what controllers do. Upper management also are the people who report to Congress with the “plan for the future” and perform their own audits (so to speak) when it comes to fatigue studies and facility staffing numbers. They have been cooking the books and saying that these problems have been mitigated to Congressional oversight committees when in fact they know more bodies are needed but prefer to use the money allocated to pursue some of the pie in the sky ideas I mentioned. The union has been calling for independent studies of these issues because we believe that safety of the National Airspace System is more important than the legacy of an individual buearocrat that implemented “this” or “that.”

    Basically, the controllers that work each day are the ones that are highlighting how the money being spent by the FAA is not producing results and is best allocated to providing more staffing. For example, ERAM is an acronym for a new computer platform to operate radar scopes. We, the taxpayers, pumped more than a billion dollars into it and it doesn’t work, mainly because the actual humans that would operate the equipment were not part of the process. Only now, after the controllers union was allowed to come aboard, were we able to get ERAM operational.

    Another example, part of Nex Gen is taking the complex system of highways in the sky and modernize them giving aircraft more direct routes of flight to their destinations. The controllers union is for this, but we put out repeatedly that this will only put a giant spotlight on the bigger problem….RUNWAYS. Only one aircraft at a time can be on the runway (airliner types) so when there are 12 flights that say they depart at noon…guess what…only one departs at noon. You have 12 planes depart San Francisco for Newark 10 minutes apart and fly pretty much direct because of the highway in the sky upgrades. Everything works fine till they approach the terminal area (lets say 100 miles from the destination). The first plane begins to slow down so the aircraft behind catch up and have to slow down. Since they are all going to the same runway, everything slows down (remember 1 on the cement at a time). Now imagine that those 12 airplanes also get in line with the other 20 or 30 that are also going to Newark. Only one gets to land at the time on your ticket. Runways people! lol Runways! The controllers union has been highlighting this for years but upper management (who are almost NEVER prior controllers) don’t get it or listen to the lobbyist from the airlines or the company that has the newest, really expensive do-dad the government should buy.

    Union dues get allocated to political action committees of whatever politician believes in our job. I would have to say that the D and R goes 70/30. I do not like that but there are those in the Republican party that, for whatever reason, side with upper FAA management and think controllers are overpaid and overstaffed. Newt Gingrich and Rep. Mica (avaition subcommittee guy) are on record saying that we can do the ATC job with half the controllers and less pay. Statements like that make reasonable controllers become democrats.

    Believe me…I do not like the affiliation we have with the AFL-CIO but that seems to be the nature of things. I beleive the political parties fraction over how the FAA should direct their funds is why the split I mentioned is 70/30.

    Hope I replied accordingly to your comments.

    • Liberals Demise says:

      Thank you for your expert answer, sir.

      “Flying Pig L-10 Heavy you are cleared for take off on runway 23-Right”

    • canary says:


      wow. you’ll have to scroll up blast upwards to see my thank you, until I read the rest of the lesson.

    • proreason says:

      I haven’t been involved in this discussion, but having read this post, I have a different perspective than Mr. atcpr.

      The situation is an indictment of government, not a reason for a union. There are few checks on our out-of-control governments. But trumping one evil with another isn’t the answer either.

      The FAA should be privatized. The market will fix the problems better and faster than two power-hungry, self-interested entities arguing about who should be the uber commissar.

  13. atcpr says:

    Privatize!!! Sweet!!! The privatized controllers in Europe make 250K plus. I’ll take that! Many people who think privatizing ATC is viable option point to the European model. Like I said, lots of money for me if that is the case. However, the comparision is flawed in a big way. Southern California TRACON, located in beautiful San Diego is a radar only facility that covers about the bottom half of California. This facility does more traffic in a year than ALL of Europe combined. DFW, ATL, and ORD combined (which are just ATC towers) do more traffic per year than all of Europe combined. Which means I could stand to make even more than the European controllers. Bring it.

    • proreason says:

      Nonsense. Read for comprehension not for gotchas.

      Every European country is socialist, many tending toward communist, and the unions run a good bit of it. That’s why they have 4 day work weeks, retirement ages of 55, 6 weeks off, and outrageous benefits on top of that. At best the markets there are fascist.

      I’m not talking “pretend free market, wink wink”, I’m talking free markets.

      In a true free market, the market would set the salaries. If the skill level demands $250K, then that’s what it should be, not because some union or some government dictates it.

      But Europe certainly doesn’t qualify. The poeple there who make the most money are the one’s most willing to lie threaten cheat and steal…kind of what the US has become since 2008.

    • JohnMG says:

      Just an added commment atcpr.

      Wirenut’s comment referenced himself and his piloting experience prior to the job he now holds. He didn’t take a swipe at you, as you perceived.

    • canary says:

      atcpr that doesn’t make since, even if you are a supervisor. You’d all quit paying union dues if you thought you could double your pay. This may explain how you figured wrong..


    • atcpr says:


      The only reason I commented at all was to try and shed light on the fact that it wasn’t a union “thug” that was responsible for the staff shortages and inattentiveness to human fatigue problems in the ATC world. I wanted to address the fact that the FAA bureaucracy is to blame. Where I tried to add reasonable commentary and spent more time than I would have liked trying to explain how ATC works to S&L readers, you jump in with a brief snippet about just privatize the industry and all will be fixed. I personally, through the readings of the smartest man on planet earth, Thomas Sowell, adore the free market and understand how it makes our country exceptional. However, I would argue that I replied with a “gotcha,” as you put it, because I don’t think you understand the industry that you call for privatization. ATC is one of the few things that our federal government has come up with that actually works and serves the public well. ATC was started after two airliners in the 1950s crashed over the Grand Canyon while trying to show the passengers the big hole in the ground. The FAA, as a whole, are the regulators of laws passed in Congress pertaining to the sky above our country. Just as the Treasury Department, FBI, DEA and ATF are the regulators of law, I would argue that is a service that government is responsible for regarding public safety and national defense. What agency in the federal government do you think we should not privatize, I wonder. ATC in the U.S. is the standard for the world. So much that air traffic controllers throughout the world are required to know american english, standardizing the language all pilots must use.

      I used Europe as the model for privatization because those that are calling for privatization refer to how the continent operates when formulating their argument. Privatization of ATC does exist in the U.S. Companies like Serco and Midwest ATC are government contractors. These companies operate slow ATC Towers throughout the country as a cost saving measure to the government. They are a “for profit” entity. The controllers that are employed by these companies make less the the FAA controller for sure. These employees are overwhelmingly drawn from two distinct areas. They are normally either retired FAA controllers that hae reached the government mandated age limit for the FAA or former military controllers awaiting to be picked up by the FAA. Also, Midwest operates as a defense contractor, staffing overseas ATC facilities inside OIF and OEF areas of responsibility. (side note: those overseas controllers make almost 200K to be there.) Anyway, these companies operate at minimum staffing at all times to optiomize profits for the company. I have nothing against companies trying to increase their profit, but it goes contrary to the original article we all are commenting on and the spirit of my persepctive.

      The idea is how to adequate staff our ATC facilities and address human fatigue issues more diligently. I would argue that the position of the controllers union is actually the position the flying public would want ths government agency to take. Namely, do not negatively impact the safety of the flying public to spend money on government boondoggles as I believe FAA higher ups are attempting to do.

      Finally, any privatization of the FAA would be the controllers and various maintenance personnel, not the higher headquarters folks that I believe are not serving the public well.

      @ canary, Unlike other unions, ATC is not a “closed” shop. You do not have to join the union and only members pay dues. We (controllers union) actually believe we serve the country well trying to concentrate our efforts to increasing safety of the National Airspace System.

    • proreason says:

      I’m havng a really hard time picking which unions are good and deciding which union actions are acceptable.

      I have the same problem with the Mafia. I know they are generally religious guys and donate to charity, and some are good family men and all, but I just can’t let go of the murder stuff, kneecaps and whatnot

      So with Unions and the Mafia, I’m just not willing to spend the time to cipher what is good and what is bad. As a union guy, in 2011, in my opinion, you are no different than any of them. You need to be defeated, not debated.

      Now to be clear, just being in a member of union doesn’t qualify. Rush is in a union because he has to be to earn a living. But those who defend any aspect of what unions do…off my list. You aren’t a solution. You are a problem, and a BIG part of the problem that is destroying the country.

    • atcpr says:

      I replied to your original post about your call to privatize the FAA, which in large part is not unionized. I tried to explain about the FAA as a whole as being a productive part of the federal government apparatus. I tried to explain how market forces have driven the few private companies that offer ATC to maintain minimum staffing, which is not a good idea when we are talking about human fatigue and flight safety. You compared me to the mafia. Good day. I am not wasting anymore of my time.

  14. wirenut says:

    atcpr, Easy Thunder! You read way too much into my earlier post. My real job is now a maintenance director of a long-term health care facility. I was trying to put some context to my lack of knowledge of your world. Now with that said, I’m very familiar with some governmental agencies in regards to health care world. Nobody here at S&L does drive-by commenting, period. Play fast and loose with the facts and you will receive all the attention one can handle however.

    Hat tip to JohnMG.

    • atcpr says:

      Sorry. I spend alot of time gaining knowledge at various places on the internet, including Sweetness and Light, but haven’t commented before. My defenses are up I guess since I am new to this…lol

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