AIN Blog: To Sleep or Not To Sleep, or Perchance To Score Some Political Points

 - April 9, 2013, 7:01 AM
Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland is one of 149 contract towers earmarked for closure in the coming months.(Photo: Bill Carey)

Remember the spate of sleeping controllers and the angst it all caused at 800 Independence Avenue and 1200 New Jersey Avenue?

Then-FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, a former airline pilot and a former head of the controllers union, said he was “personally outraged” that the lone controller on overnight duty at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) on March 23, 2011, inadvertently dozed off and left the tower silent as two commercial airliners were forced to land on their own.

When Babbitt and his boss, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood began looking into other controllers sleeping on the job, they discovered that a controller in Knoxville, Tenn., deliberately went to sleep during the midnight shift on Feb. 19, 2011. But this guy literally had made his own bed on the tower fleer, using couch pillows from the break room and a blanket.

Over the course of the probe, officials unmasked other incidents of sleeping in towers. “I am totally outraged by these incidents. This is absolutely unacceptable,” LaHood fumed. “We absolutely cannot and will not tolerate sleeping on the job. This type of unprofessional behavior does not meet out high safety standards,” added Babbitt.

On April 11, 2011, they announced that a second controller would be placed on the midnight shift at 27 control towers around the country that previously had been staffed with only one controller during that time.

Fast forward to March 22, 2013, when the FAA announced that 149 federal contract towers would be closed beginning April 7 (since postponed) as part of the agency’s sequestration implementation plan.

The FAA, which was worried two years ago about not having at least two people in control towers overnight (hopefully to keep each other awake), now seems comfortable with having no one in some towers. “We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” said new FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

As one of many pilots who did much of their flying at non-towered airports, I know the sky isn’t going to fall with closed towers. But does anyone remember the crash at non-towered Quincy (Ill.) Regional Airport in 1996 when a United Express Beechcraft 1900 and a Beech A90 collided at intersecting runways?

Both pilots and all 10 passengers on the 1900C and both pilots in the A90D were killed in the fiery crash. The NTSB determined the probable cause was the failure of the pilots of the King Air to effectively monitor the common traffic advisory frequency or to properly scan for traffic, resulting in their commencing a takeoff roll when the regional airliner was landing on an intersecting runway.


Several flights operate daily at non-towered field. The reason the sleeping controllers were a safety concern is that there was an expectation of ATC services at the field. There were no NOTAMs issued stating that the pilots should use the CTAF.

If there are sufficient NOTAMs issued and pilots properly monitor and advise others of their intentions on the CTAF, there should be no reduction in safety at any of the airports where towers will be closed. As a pilot, the extent of misleading information claiming that towered airports are "safer" is appalling.

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