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FAA revises controller procedures; Measure seeks to prevent more unguided landings

The Federal Aviation Administration gave air traffic controllers new procedures Friday as officials try to contain the fallout after two airliners landed at Reagan National Airport without assistance because the lone controller on duty was asleep.

Regional radar facilities are now required to alert controllers working alone at night in an airport tower that a plane is approaching, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said. The radar facilities are "to confirm that there is a controller prepared to handle the incoming flight," he said.

Regional controllers have also been reminded that if no controller can be raised at an airport tower, proper procedures require they offer pilots the option of diverting to another airport, Babbitt said.

Controllers at a regional FAA radar facility in Warrenton, Va., about 40 miles from Reagan, didn't offer that option to the pilots of the two planes who were unable to reach the airport's tower between 12:04 and 12:28 a.m. on Wednesday.

Repeated phone calls from the regional facility to the tower also went unanswered.

The planes -- an American Airlines flight from Dallas and a United Airlines flight from Chicago with a combined 165 people on board -- landed safely.

The controller on duty in the tower -- a veteran air traffic supervisor -- acknowledged to investigators who interviewed him Thursday that he had dozed off, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

The controller, who has not been identified, was working his fourth 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift in a row, according the board, which is investigating the episode.

The incident has renewed concern about the potential safety consequences of controllers suffering from fatigue, a longstanding concern of the board.

It has also sparked criticism of FAA's practice of scheduling a single controller on overnight shifts at some airports, but especially at Reagan, which is in Arlington, Va., and just across the Potomac River from downtown Washington.

At least one congressional committee has launched its own investigation, and the issue is expected to be raised next week when the House takes up a bill to provide long-term authority for FAA programs.

On Wednesday night, less than 24 hours after the incident, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered a second controller be added to the overnight shift at Reagan.

About 30 other airports around the country also have a single controller on duty on the overnight shift. In some instances, the controllers work alone for only a part of the shift.

The FAA is examining whether staffing on those overnight shifts should be increased.

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