Air traffic controller suspended; House will probe Reagan airport lapse

The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday suspended the air traffic controller at Washington's Reagan National Airport who did not respond to radio communications on Wednesday from two jetliners approaching for landing, government officials said.

“The FAA is thoroughly investigating Wednesday’s early morning incidents at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s control tower," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement.

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"While that is taking place, we have suspended the air traffic controller from all operational duties. I am determined to get to the bottom of this situation for the safety of the traveling public,” he said.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday announced that it would also investigate the incident.

According to authorities, after the air traffic controller had allegedly fallen asleep, two flights were forced to land without assistance from the flight tower at Reagan. The planes — a United Airlines flight from Chicago and an American Airlines plane from Dallas — were each able to land safely.

Babbitt said that as a former pilot, the incident disturbed him. 

"I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes," he 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.”

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House panel, said the incident was "troubling and of great concern.

“We must deal with the immediate safety and security concerns of this critical airspace, so I welcome [Transportation] Secretary [Ray] LaHood’s decision to increase personnel at the airport and examine staffing levels at airports around the country," Rahall said.  

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered the airport to staff its tower with at least two controllers. In addition to the FAA and the House panel, the National Transportation Safety Board has launched investigations into the incident.
 
"Investigations are ongoing and must fully run their course, but if wrongdoing is discovered, appropriate action must be taken immediately," Rahall said. "The committee has and will continue to examine the issue of air traffic staffing and stands ready to act to ensure that America continues to have the safest commercial aviation system in the world.