WASHINGTON (AP) - The official who oversees the nation's air traffic system resigned Thursday and the Federal Aviation Administration began a "top to bottom" review of the entire system following disclosures of four instances of air traffic controllers sleeping on the job.
FAA chief Randy Babbitt said in a statement that Hank Krakowski, the head of the agency's Air Traffic Organization, had submitted his resignation. He said David Grizzle, FAA's chief counsel, will temporarily take over for Krakowski while the agency searches for a replacement. Babbitt moved on Wednesday to add a second overnight air traffic controller at more than two dozen airports around the country.
The controllers were added hours after a medical flight was unable to raise a lone controller working at 2 a.m. at Reno-Tahoe International Airport. FAA said the Reno controller, who was out of communication for 16 minutes, was sleeping. The plane landed safely with assistance from controllers at a regional radar facility in Northern California. Babbitt said he would conduct a "top to bottom" review of FAA's entire air traffic system.
"Over the last few weeks we have seen examples of unprofessional conduct on the part of a few individuals that have rightly caused the traveling public to question our ability to ensure their safety," Babbitt said. "This conduct must stop immediately."
Word of Krakowski's resignation came as FAA officials were to meet privately Thursday with members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which oversees FAA's budget. Key members of Congress - including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. - have demanded FAA stop controllers from sleeping on the job. The Reno incident was the second case this week of a sleeping controller.
A controller at Boeing Field-King County International in Seattle was suspended after he fell asleep during his morning shift on Monday, the FAA said. He was already facing disciplinary action for sleeping on two separate occasions during an early evening shift in January, the agency said. The latest cases follow three previously disclosed incidents in which controllers have been suspended, including two episodes of controllers sleeping on duty. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has warned against putting controllers alone on shifts and assigning tiring work schedules.
At most airport towers, there's no bathroom in the room on top of the tower, known as the cab. With only one controller on duty, the position has to go unattended at times if the controller needs to use a bathroom. It's common for the nearest bathroom to be located down a flight of stairs. Two controllers at the airport in Lubbock, Texas, were suspended for an incident early March 29, the agency said.
A controller in Fort Worth had to try repeatedly to raise the Lubbock controllers in order to hand off control of an inbound aircraft. The controllers also failed to hand off a plane departing Lubbock to the Fort Worth radar center, FAA said. Babbitt and Paul Rinaldi, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents FAA's more than 15,000 controllers, will be visiting airports and radar facilities around the country next week "to reinforce the need for all air traffic personnel to adhere to the highest professional standards," FAA said in a statement.
The incidents come nearly five years after a fatal crash in Kentucky in which a controller was working alone. Investigators said the controller in Kentucky was most likely suffering from fatigue, although they placed responsibility for the crash that took 49 lives on the pilots.
FAA identified airport towers where a second controller was added to the midnight shift as: Akron-Canton, Ohio; Allegheny, Pa.; Andrews Air Force Base, Md.; Burbank, Calif.; Duluth, Minn.; DuPage, Ill.; Fargo, N.D.; two airports in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Ft. Worth Meacham, Texas; Grant County, Wash.; Kansas City, Mo.; Manchester, N.H.; Omaha, Neb.; Ontario, Calif.; Reno-Tahoe, Nev.; Richmond, Va.; Sacramento, Calif.; San Diego, Calif.; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Terre Haute, Ind.; Teterboro, N.J.; Tucson, Ariz.; Willow Run, Mich.; Windsor Locks, Conn.; and Youngstown, Ohio. A second nighttime controller was also added at an approach control facility in Omaha.