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April 13, 2011

Nev. air traffic controller asleep as med flight landed

By Karoun Demirjian
Las Vegas Sun

RENO, Nev. — Air ambulance operators are trained to respond to medical emergencies, not to make emergency landings.

But a team flying a sick passenger into the Reno-Tahoe airport Wednesday morning did just that, when an air traffic controller fell asleep on the job.

It happened about 2 a.m., when the ambulance, after circling the airport for 16 minutes while trying to contact the control tower seven times, made an unassisted landing without the tower's help.

No one was injured, but the FAA said Wednesday it had suspended the air traffic controller for falling asleep at work and being out of communication.

The suspension is the second this month for the FAA, which has investigated at least five lapses this year in airports around the country — four involving controllers falling asleep on the job. The FAA announced Wednesday it was immediately putting a second controller on the midnight shift at 27 airports around the country that currently use one controller overnight.

"I am totally outraged by these incidents. This is absolutely unacceptable," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "The American public trusts us to run a safe system. Safety is our number one priority and I am committed to working 24/7 until these problems are corrected."

While the controller's suspension seems to be a disciplinary action, airport chief Krys Bart indicated that blame didn't just rest with the sleeping official, but with the system that left the airport and its runways solely in one person's hands.

"The flying public needs an assurance from the FAA that this situation will be addressed at all airports," Bart said. "We must have adequate staffing."

While LaHood's quick response to the cry for help coming from airports like Reno-Tahoe is being applauded today, his direction to amp up staffing may not be enough to address a deeper problem in the air traffic control force.

Rules are one thing, but there's also a staffing crisis underway in the industry.

In the last few years, several studies have documented how air traffic controllers are overworked in terms of hours and work-related stresses, and understaffed: in this decade, more than half of the air traffic controllers in the country will be forced to retire, and there's not yet enough people in the pipeline to replace them.

The highly specialized field of air safety isn't the easiest career to get into. Controllers are responsible not just for negotiating runway traffic, but policing the skies for about a 50-mile radius around their towers. It's a high-stress position that requires eagle-eye attention on the job, which is difficult for anyone to keep up for a straight eight-hour shift; and many air traffic control units work rotating shifts in order to keep airports staffed round-the-clock.

One can't be more than 31 years old to be hired and entered into the 3-to-5 years worth of training it takes to become certified, because the federal government mandates that controllers retire by age 56.

While air traffic controllers are considered especially "essential" national personnel, as we learned in the run-up to a potential government shutdown last week, Congress hasn't yet corrected the problem.

Aviation safety was a major focus of the FAA Reauthorization bill that the Senate passed in February by a vote of 87-8. Nevada Senators Harry Reid and John Ensign both voted in favor of the legislation.

But the House passed a different version of the bill, that funds the Federal Aviation Administration at about $4 billion less.

That may sound good in a time of deficit reduction — and the House legislation did contain an instruction not to let the cuts compromise aviation safety — but FAA officials have warned that the House's bill would force them to furlough several hundred safety employees.

"It's dangerous. It doesn't protect passengers, it imperils passengers," Reid said of the House's bill.

The House's bill passed by a vote of 223-196, with Nevada Republicans Dean Heller and Joe Heck voting for it, and Nevada Democrat Shelley Berkley voting against it.

The two pieces of legislation are now going through the conferencing process, where their dissimilar provisions will be resolved before each house of Congress will be asked to pass the revised version again.

Reid, who flies in and out of Reno several times a year, took a moment on the Senate floor Wednesday to marvel that no one was injured in Wednesday morning's incident, especially given what he called the "terribly rough" air conditions at the Reno-Tahoe airport as a result of wind constantly coming down into the valley off the Sierra Nevada Mountain range nearby.

He urged the congressional conferees, when considering the reauthorizations that are supposed to modernize the country's aviation system, to fulfill what he called Congress' "key role" in mitigating and correcting the inadequacies of airport safety precautions as well.

"Last night's near tragedy reminds us that the state of the art structures and the best tech works only as well as the people operating them," Reid said.


Copyright 2011 Las Vegas Sun

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