Florida Air Traffic Controller Suspended After Planes Fly Too Close For Comfort

Another air traffic controller gets suspended after close call.

ByLisa Stark and Leezel Tanglao
March 30, 2011, 1:00 AM

March 30, 2011— -- A Florida air traffic controller supervisor has been suspended after officials said he compromised the safety of passengers by letting two planes fly too close to each other, officials said.

The incident happened in the skies near Orlando on Sunday night.

A small private Cirrus SR22 plane heading to a nearby general aviation airport in Kissimmee, Fla., had been out of radio contact for over an hour, despite repeated attempts to reach the pilot.

The air traffic controller asked a Southwest Airlines jet heading to Orlando International Airport to check on the Cirrus' status. It was then that the Southwest plane got so close to the Cirrus that the pilots could see the two people in the cockpit.

The Cirrus was flying at 11,000 feet. The Southwest Boeing 737 was at 12,000 feet and some 10 miles behind.

The Southwest jet was carrying 137 passengers at the time.

Cirrus pilots contacted controllers and both aircraft landed safely at their intended airports.

In a statement FAA administrator Randy Babbitt said, ".. the air traffic controller compromised the safety of everyone involved. This incident was totally inappropriate."

The mishap comes just a week after the lone overnight air traffic control supervisor at Washington's Reagan National airport fell asleep in the tower, forcing two commercial planes to land without help.

The American Airlines and United Airlines planes were both in contact with regional air traffic controllers before being handed off to controllers at Reagan National.

John Nance, ABC News aviation consultant, said in the Florida incident the unsafe aspect of the situation is that they did not know what the pilots in the little airplane might do or who was in the cockpit.

John Goglia, an ex-National Transportation Safety Board member, told the Associated Press that after the two most recent incidents, "the FAA needs to do a major self-assessment of how they're managing the air traffic control work force."

Sources tell ABC News that in the Florida case, the concern with any plane that's out of communication is terrorism, which may be the reason the controller made the unusual decision to send the Southwest plane on its little side trip.

The suspended controller in the Florida case has not been identified.

ABC News' Bradley Blackburn and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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