Two airliners landed at Reagan National Airport near Washington without control tower clearance because the air traffic supervisor was asleep, safety and aviation officials said Wednesday.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood late Wednesday directed that two air traffic controllers be on duty at Reagan late at night following the incident.
LaHood said in a statement that he has also ordered the Federal Aviation Administration administrator to study tower staffing at other airports around the country.
An aviation official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the incident, confirmed that the controller had fallen asleep.
The pilots of the two commercial planes were unable to reach the tower, but they were in communication with a regional air traffic control facility, according to National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Peter Knudson. That facility is in Warrenton, Va., about 40 miles from the airport.
Regional air traffic facilities handle aircraft within roughly a 50-mile radius of an airport, but landings, takeoffs and planes within about three miles of an airport are handled by controllers in the airport tower.
After pilots were unable to raise the airport tower by radio, they asked controllers in Warrenton to call the tower, Knudson said. Repeated calls to the tower went unanswered, he said. The planes involved were American Airlines Flight 1012 and United Airlines Flight 628T, Knudson said.
The FAA released a statement confirming the incident.
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.
But the incident raises serious questions about controller fatigue.