Sleeping Reagan Air Traffic Controller Shows FAA’s Failures

The incident at Reagan National Airport in which two airliners landed after midnight without any assistance from the control tower illustrates a long-standing flaw with the Federal Aviation Administration. That agency combines two incompatible roles in a single body: aviation safety regulator and operator of the air traffic control system. Every other aspect of the aviation system is regulated at arm’s-length by the FAA: airports, airlines, air taxis, business jets, pilots, mechanics, and the producers of planes and engines. Only the air traffic control system is operated by the safety regulator itself, rather than being regulated by it.

For years the FAA has been addressing the problem of fatigue among airline cockpit crews, a potential safety hazard and source of accidents. Air traffic controllers are also well-known to have fatigue problems, due in part to shift schedules that play havoc with their sleep cycles. That might well be the cause of the incident in the Reagan tower, in which the lone controller on the night shift is reported to have fallen asleep.

Had the FAA been as diligent about controller fatigue as it is about pilot fatigue, the problem of on-the-job sleeping might be a thing of the past. But thus far, the FAA has simply not taken it seriously.

Every developed country in Europe, as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many others, has separated its air traffic control system from its aviation safety regulatory agency over the past decade, in accordance with rules from the International Civil Aviation Organization. Doing so in this country has been recommended by several former FAA Administrators, as well as a number of U.S. aviation safety experts. But Congress has thus far ignored the problem.

Let’s hope this incident at the airport used most often by members of Congress makes them aware of this overdue safety reform.