Controller flies solo, but system has a safeguard
Published Tuesday, Mar. 29, 2011
Sacramento International Airport is among a handful of larger airports in California that have only one air traffic controller on duty during late night and early morning hours, the Federal Aviation Administration said Monday.
The same situation gave rise to an incident at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., last week in which the airport’s only controller on duty fell asleep and two planes carrying a total of 165 passengers landed without airport contact.
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said he was “outraged” and ordered air traffic control guidelines to be revamped at airports across the nation.
“I am determined to make sure we do not repeat Wednesday’s unacceptable event,” Babbitt said.
The changes ordered by Babbitt are similar to procedures now used in Sacramento, an FAA spokesman said.
They include a requirement that radar controllers who oversee regional air traffic must contact airport towers to make sure controllers are ready to handle incoming flights.
Locally, controllers at the FAA’s Northern California Terminal Radar Control, or TRACON, facility at Sacramento Mather Airport hand off incoming flights to the tower at Sacramento International Airport.
When a controller at Mather hands off a flight to the Sacramento tower, the Sacramento controller must enter keystrokes into a computer to accept the handoff, an FAA official said.
If that fails to happen, the TRACON controller calls the airport tower, and if no one answers, the controller alerts the pilot that the tower is unmanned and calls airport security to investigate.
“In addition, I have reminded all air traffic controllers that proper procedures dictate that they must offer pilots the option to divert to another airport if they do not make contact with the control tower,” Babbitt said.
FAA officials in California said they were unaware of incidents at Sacramento International Airport similar to the one at Reagan National.
There are typically two departures and three arrivals on weekdays during the late shift – from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. – at Sacramento International Airport, authorities said.
Other California airports with only one traffic controller on duty during the so-called midnight shift include San Diego, Burbank and Ontario, the FAA said.
Labor union officials with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association have called for at least two people on overnight shifts in towers now staffed with one person in such cities as Sacramento, San Diego and Reno.
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