FAA: Reagan incident not likely at RDU

Air traffic control

March 24, 2011 3:23:36 PM PDT
The FAA says the situation at Reagan International Airport involving a sleeping air traffic controller is not likely to happen at RDU, but some passengers say it was something they were thinking about while flying.

Flying from Philadelphia to RDU, the McNeal family admits they had the incident in their minds.

"I was very concerned," Jim McNeal said. "I was very concerned about it and we did talk about it."

"When I heard that the tower was silent, I said to my husband, 'Always when we fly, there's an issue,'" Jim's wife, Thais McNeal, said.

The FAA suspended the air traffic controller who fell asleep on the overnight shift at Reagan. When the pilots from two different planes could not reach anyone in the tower, they landed themselves.

Longtime air traffic controller and Investigator Oscar Lewis says that raises additional concerns.

"If unable to reach the tower, the aircraft should've been diverted to Dulles International Airport versus landing at an uncontrollable airport not knowing the condition of the airfield," Lewis said.

The transportation secretary has offered a review of staffing at airports across the country and now has two controllers working the overnight shift at Reagan.

An FAA spokesperson says there are always at least two people working the midnight shift at RDU -- one for the tower and one for the radar, which also is located in the tower.

At major metro airports, the radar is usually in a separate building, sometimes miles away from the tower.

In 2008, the I-Team uncovered safety concerns involving air traffic controllers at RDU. The FAA admitted there were fewer fully certified controllers than there should be.

Now, the agency is in the process of a 10-year, nationwide workforce plan trying to replace controllers preparing to retire.

"I feel bad for us because we're relying on a system that we think is taking our safety into consideration," Thais McNeal said.

But the McNeals feel good they and the passengers at Reagan landed safely.

The FAA administrator says he's personally outraged that the incident happened at he's determined to get to the bottom of the situation for the safety of the traveling public.

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