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Asleep in the tower; Investigation of D.C. incident must include staffing, fatigue

Just 10 years after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, America remains on alert -- except last week in the control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National, where the supervisor failed to respond to two planes trying to land. He had fallen asleep, according to news reports.

The control tower supervisor was suspended and the incident is being investigated. But it's not a big leap to imagine what the 97 passengers on an American Boeing 737 who flew in from Miami, or the 68 people from a United Airlines Airbus 320 from Chicago must have been thinking when they heard the news.

The whole thing is nothing short of shocking. The incident calls for the investigation that is under way, but the review also needs to include an evaluation of policies on controller staffing and fatigue.

The pilots of the two planes made safe landings within minutes of each other after failing to get any response from the lone person on duty in the tower. Calls from controllers elsewhere in the region also went unanswered.

The pilots also used a "shout line," which pipes into a loudspeaker in the tower, which is staffed by one air traffic controller from midnight to 6 a.m., according to reports by the Associated Press. The news agency interviewed an aviation official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, who said the supervisor who was on duty simply fell asleep.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt was quick to respond, saying that the administration is "thoroughly investigating Wednesday's early-morning incident at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport's control tower." And he's going to get to the bottom of the situation for the safety of the traveling public.

Meanwhile, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood directed the FAA to place two air-traffic controllers at the airport control tower on the midnight shift. "It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space," he said.

That should have been obvious all along. Even at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, two controllers staff the overnight shift, according to a government official.

Many issues besides terrorism have come to the forefront on protecting passengers, as well as those on the ground. Families of Continental Flight 3407 have fought for key safety air reforms. One key issue was pilot fatigue. Last week's dangerous lapse suggests that controller fatigue might also need to be closely monitored.

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