Plane From Chicago Encounters Sleeping Air Traffic Controller

UPDATED 03/24/11 8:20 a.m.

WASHINGTON (WBBM/CBS) — The Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing air traffic controller staffing at airports nationwide.

As WBBM Newsradio 780’s Mike Krauser reports, the move comes after two planes, including one from Chicago, landed at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. without clearance because they couldn’t reach anyone in the tower.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Mike Krauser reports

The first plane, an American Airlines Boeing 737 from Dallas, approached the airport around midnight but aborted its landing and circled the airport after pilots got no response from the tower. About 15 minutes later, a United Airlines Airbus 320 from Chicago also tried unsuccessfully to establish contact with the tower.

The pilots then reached the radar facility serving the airport.

“The tower is apparently unmanned,” a pilot said in a radio communication “We called on the phone. Nobody’s answering.”

The tower was not unmanned. The one controller on duty, according to an aviation official, was asleep.

Both planes landed with the help of a controller at a facility 40 miles away.

Now, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has directed the FAA to put two controllers on duty on the midnight shift, and ordered a review of staffing at other airports.

“(Wednesday) I directed the FAA to place two air traffic controllers at Ronald Reagan Washington National airport’s control tower on the midnight shift,” LaHood said in a statement. “It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space. I have also asked FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt to study staffing levels at other airports around the country.”

As for Chicago airports, the control tower O’Hare International Airport is staffed by an air traffic supervisor and three controllers on the midnight shift, while the tower Midway International Airport is staffed by two controllers, according to FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory.

Northwestern University aviation expert Aaron Gellman says regardless of the number of people in the tower, the glitch could be a reflection of inadequate federal recruiting standards for air traffic controllers.

“They’re not making sure that the people who go into the school and come out of the school are really the best qualified people they can get,” he told CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole.

Gellman says it’s not unusual to have only one controller staff an airport the size of Reagan at that hour.

(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS Radio and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

  • Passenger1

    EXTREMELY UNACCEPTABLE!!! We actually fly from ORD to DCA every so often to see Family…. That controller should be FIRED!!!! NOT JUST SUSPENDED!!!… and be charged with a LAWSUIT…. The LIFE of hundreds of passengers (not to mention the crew) of the 2 planes was under his “CONTROL”!!!… HELLO!!!! and they said that this had happened before, OMG???…. some folks are still horrified of getting on a plane, and this happens???…. EXTREMELY UNACCEPTABLE…..

  • Sarah

    maybe they decided to go with Odumbo to Latin America,

  • Benjamin Jaffe

    Are you sure it was a united flight? we were on an american flight from ohare to reagan at that exact time.

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