US aviation official quits over sleeping controllers

Fri Apr 15, 2011 5:36am EDT

The main air traffic control tower at Reagan Washington National Airport is seen on March 24, 2011. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

The main air traffic control tower at Reagan Washington National Airport is seen on March 24, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Hyungwon Kang

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John Crawley and Kyle Peterson

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - The government official overseeing day-to-day U.S. air traffic operations resigned on Thursday after additional disclosures of air controllers sleeping on the job.

Hank Krakowski was director of the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Organization, which is responsible for orchestrating more than 9 million departures and arrivals at more than 400 airports annually.

His resignation was accepted by FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who said in a statement he had launched a full-scale review of how some 15,000 controllers do their job.

"Over the last few weeks, we have seen examples of unprofessional conduct on the part of a few individuals that have rightly caused the travelling public to question our ability to ensure their safety," Babbitt said in a statement. "This conduct must stop immediately."

The FAA is investigating at least four controllers who fell asleep at work, including one who was out of radio contact while a medical flight was trying land in Nevada.

Radio silence also greeted two jetliners preparing to land in Washington, D.C., in another incident last month. Additionally, a controller at a Tennessee airport in February was found sleeping under a blanket.

On Monday, a controller at Boeing Field/King County International Airport in Seattle was suspended for falling asleep during his morning shift, the FAA said.

The controversy has alarmed safety advocates and has become fodder for late night comics. It also comes at a delicate moment for the FAA, which has faced criticism from Congress and others over the years for inefficiency and safety lapses.

Lawmakers are about to negotiate details of sweeping legislation to boost FAA operations and modernize the air traffic system, talks that under the best circumstances would require proponents to find more support than usual.

Unionized controllers have also been a target of Republicans in Congress, who now control the U.S. House of Representatives.

House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica plans a closed-door meeting with FAA leaders to discuss recent near-miss incidents involving jetliners and the sleeping controller uproar.

The controller issue focuses on overnight staffing at airport towers where certain smaller centres post one person to handle a handful of flights. The FAA said on Wednesday that it would add controllers at 27 towers for late night shifts.

The National Transportation Safety Board NTSB.L in recent months has stepped up its review of controller staffing, performance and fatigue issues. This includes the near miss of a passenger jet and two military aircraft in January over the Atlantic Ocean off New York.

Suspected controller errors in 2010 hit 1,887 from 1,233 the previous year, according to the FAA. More than half were considered relatively minor, but reports in the most severe category rose to 43 from 37, FAA figures show.

(Reporting by John Crawley and Kyle Peterson; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Tim Dobbyn)

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