National Airport Air Traffic Controller Falls Asleep On The Job

There was an odd moment in the skies over Washington, D.C. the other day:

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered a second air traffic controller to be on duty overnight at Reagan National Airport, after the lone controller was unavailable early Wednesday as two passenger planes were trying to land.

LaHood also instructed the Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating the incident, to examine staffing levels at other airports around the country.

The two D.C. airliners, carrying a total of 165 passengers and crew members, landed on their own shortly after midnight after attempting to contact the control tower and receiving no response.

The tower normally is staffed by one air-traffic controller from midnight to 6 a.m. The on-duty controller did not respond to pilot requests for landing assistance or to phone calls from controllers elsewhere in the region, who also used a “shout line,” which pipes into a loudspeaker in the tower, internal records show.

Both planes–an American Airlines Boeing 737 flying in from Miami with 97 people onboard, and a United Airlines Airbus 320 flying in from Chicago with 68 people onboard–landed safely, within minutes of each other.

The planes’ pilots took matters into their own hands, broadcasting their progress as they approached and landed. They also were communicating with controllers at a separate facility in the region that does not handle landings.


The incident, which the National Transportation Safety Board also is reviewing, is the second time in as many years that the tower at National has gone silent, said a source familiar with tower operations who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the FAA.

The surprising thing is that the planes were able to land without direct communication with the tower.


The previous time, the lone controller on duty left his swipe-card pass key behind when he stepped outside the tower’s secure door and was unable to get back in, the source said. A controller at another facility mentioned that incident as the pilots were trying to land Wednesday morning.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Not really surprising they could land unassisted:

    My beef with the WAPO article was that throughout the entire article, no explanation was provided of where the on-duty controller was that whole time. I’ve noticed this type of slipshod reporting has been more and more common at the WaPo. The reporters all think they are in a creative writing class instead of just providing the facts without analysis.

  2. Tano says:

    It is part of basic pilot training to navigate and communicate around an uncontrolled airport. Granted, airline pilots don’t have to deal with that too often, so we can be thankful they remembered the procedures.

  3. MstrB says:

    What Would Reagan Do?

  4. jfoobar says:

    I am a hundred times more troubled that this airport has continuously staffed only a single controller in the tower for an entire shift than by that controller falling asleep. The latter is inevitable, which is why you don’t trust such a critical operation to a single person.

  5. Boyd says:

    It’s not really all that strange that there would only be one controller on duty, since Reagan is effectively closed (no arrivals or departures scheduled) from midnight to 6 am.

    A controller falling asleep is inevitable? I have to disagree. Too many people have shouldered that duty responsibly to make such dereliction of duty inevitable.

  6. Lorne Marr says:

    I think the idea of just one air-traffic controller is totally wrong. People are paying quite high amounts of money for their plane tickets and so they expect that the airport would try to avoid any problems. Having only one person in the tower for an overnight shift is very irresponsible.