Babbitt "Outraged" Over Sleeping Controller

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The NTSB is on the case, the controller says he fell asleep, and FAA administrator Randy Babbitt is "personally outraged" following an event that saw two airliners land at Reagan National Airport, without communication from the tower, very early Wednesday. The two jets, an American Airlines 737 and a United Airbus A320, touched down between 12:12 a.m. and 12:26 a.m., with help from Potomac TRACON. The tower controller reappeared on frequency at 12:28 a.m. to provide ground control to the United flight after it landed. In a statement, Babbitt said that "as a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two planes." Transportation secretary Ray LaHood has now ordered a change, requiring a second controller to be on duty overnight at the airport, and the NTSB's investigation is underway and the controller is talking.

Until LaHood's mandate the protocol at DCA was to have one controller, a supervisor, work alone in the tower at Reagan National through the quietest hours of the night. It appears that only three aircraft were scheduled to land between the hours of midnight and 5:00 a.m., Wednesday. In this case the tower controller was a 20-year veteran who had worked DCA for 17 years, according to the NTSB. And that controller told the NTSB he had fallen asleep while on duty following three consecutive overnight shifts (Wednesday was his fourth). The shifts run from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. The controller's last transmission prior to providing ground control at 12:28 a.m. was heard at 11:55 p.m. According to the NTSB, "Human fatigue issues are one of the areas being investigated."

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