The air traffic control supervisor who apparently fell asleep on duty at Reagan National Airport early Wednesday has been drug-tested by federal officials, a step usually reserved for controllers involved in plane crashes.
Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Randy Babbitt suspended the supervisor Thursday, saying he was "personally outraged" that two airliners with 165 passengers and crew on board had to land on their own because the controller "did not meet his responsibility." The supervisor was tested at National about 12 hours after he lapsed into silence in the control tower.
"They rarely drug-test unless it's an accident," said an FAA official familiar with the incident who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak for the agency.
The controller, a veteran supervisor who was on duty alone, first said that the silence was the result of a stuck microphone, according to an audio tape of his radio transmissions.
When his voice came over the radio after about 30 minutes of silence, the conversation made reference to a "stuck mike" as the cause of the problem. Federal officials say that he had, in fact, dozed off.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered a second air traffic controller to be on duty overnight at Reagan, and instructed the FAA to examine staffing levels at other airports across the country.
The issue of overnight tower staffing arose five years ago when Comair Flight 191 turned onto the wrong runway at Lexington, Ky. The runway proved too short, and the plane crashed on takeoff, killing 165 passengers and two of the three crew members.
Investigators determined that there was just one controller in the tower, a violation of that airport's policy.
Until LaHood directed otherwise Tuesday, the National tower had been staffed by one air-traffic controller from midnight to 6 a.m. As planes approached to land early Tuesday, the on-duty controller did not respond to pilots' requests for landing assistance or to phone calls from controllers elsewhere in the region, who also used a "shout line," which pipes into a loudspeaker in the tower, internal records show.
The planes -- an American Airlines Boeing 737 flying in from Miami with 97 people on board, and a United Airlines Airbus 320 flying in from Chicago with 68 people on board -- landed safely within minutes of each other, just after midnight.
Because the controller was not available, the planes' pilots took matters into their own hands, broadcasting their progress as they approached and landed.
The incident, which the National Transportation Safety Board also is reviewing, is the second time in as many years that the tower at National has gone silent, said a source familiar with tower operations who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the FAA.
The previous time, the lone controller on duty left his swipe-card pass key behind when he stepped outside the tower's secure door and was unable to get back in, the source said.