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Air traffic controller asleep on duty, passengers' lives at risk

Airline passengers may have a variety of thoughts running through their heads when the pilot announces they are about to land. From seat to seat, different people may be thinking about their upcoming vacation, returning home to their loved ones, or simply wondering whether or not all their luggage will be waiting for them in baggage claim. One thing they should not have to think about, however, is if the airline is providing their pilots with the proper support to make a safe landing.

Passengers on two separate flights into Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. this weekend faced serious risk as their pilots were forced to land their aircrafts with no assistance from the air traffic controller on duty. The controller, who is now suspended from his position, admitted to falling asleep in the control tower. Fortunately, no one was injured during either of these risky landings, but without air traffic support both the passengers and the airline crew aboard these planes could have found themselves caught in a fatal accident.

This incident has many in the airline industry examining the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) policies regarding air traffic controllers to see if they adequately protect public safety. For instance, the sleeping controller was the only employee assigned to the night shift, a practice which is also followed at a number of other area airports, including the Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Many politicians and safety advocates are now pushing the FAA to require at least two controllers per shift.

Five years ago, 49 airline passengers died in a crash caused by a sleeping air traffic controller. In the wake of that accident, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association claimed that one-person shifts and long, tiring work schedules compromised public safety. Now, the same arguments are being rehashed before Congress, where Congressmen are considering cutting the FAA's four-year budget by $4 billion dollars. FAA officials claim that this proposed cut will not allow them to expand their air traffic control staff.

If another fatal crash were to occur due to a sleeping air traffic control person, who would be more at fault: the controller who was unable to stay awake during his/her shift, the FAA for not ensuring that there are two controllers per shift, or Congress for cutting the FAA's staffing budget?

Source: Google, "Controller asleep, but how many did airport need?" Associated Press, 25 March 2011

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