The Morning Report
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Grappling with the fallout of a sleeping air traffic controller, the federal government is reviewing its procedures that allow only one controller to be on duty at some airports, including Lindbergh Field, during overnight hours.
The airport has had one controller on duty overnight for years because of the low level of traffic, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Arrivals are allowed at all times, and as many as nine planes land at the airport each night between 11:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. Airport spokesman Steven Shultz said those are typically long-haul passenger jets or cargo planes and a mix of delayed and regularly scheduled flights. The numbers drop to two to five over the weekend.
Departures, however, face special overnight rules. Lindbergh Field bans planes from taking off during overnight hours in order to reduce noise, although there are exceptions in emergency situations. If planes violate the rules, the airport levies fines on them of at least $2,000. About two or three planes a month have violated the rules over the past two years.
Lindbergh Field is one of about 30 airports in the United States that reportedly have only one controller on duty during some overnight hours.
The FAA declared that it’s reviewing procedures in the wake of an incident at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Wednesday when two passenger airplanes arrived to land after midnight to find no controller on duty to assist them.
The solo controller supposed to be on duty was asleep. The airliners landed anyway.
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said he was “outraged,” and the snoozing controller has been suspended. On Friday, Babbitt announced he’d ordered a review of procedures nationwide to make sure “the appropriate backup procedures and equipment are in place and in use.”
Aviation specialists told the Associated Press that the airliners weren’t in danger:
It’s unlikely the safety of the planes was at risk since the pilots would have used a radio frequency for the airport tower to advise nearby aircraft of their intention to land and to make sure that no other planes also intended to land at that time, aviation safety experts said. At that time of night, air traffic would have been light, they said.
Also, controllers at the regional facility, using radar, would have been able to advise the pilots of other nearby planes, experts said.
The primary risk would have been if there were equipment on the runway when the planes landed, they said.
Patrick Smith, an airline pilot, wrote in Salon that the latter risk was remote: “Few things are more terrifying than the prospect of a high-speed ground collision, and those planes in Washington would not have touched down if their crews were not absolutely certain that the runway was clear of traffic, believe me.”
Overall, Smith wrote, the incident was “sort of, maybe, it depends, probably not” a dangerous situation.
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that there’s another angle to the story: the pilots themselves may have made a mistake by actually landing instead of heading to a different airport or waiting in the sky to figure out what was going on.
“A number of safety experts inside and outside government contend the pilots also shoulder blame in the incident,” the Journal reported.