After Reno Air Controller Sleeps Through Landing, Official Vows, 'We Will Not Sleep' Until Safety Is Guaranteed

DOT and FAA immediately mandate two controllers on overnight shifts.

ByABC News
April 13, 2011, 1:12 PM

April 13, 2011 -- For the third time in less than two months, an air traffic controller has been caught sleeping on the job -- this time while a plane carrying a critically ill patient was trying to land at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada.

"Can't seem to get a hold of the tower here," the pilot of the LifeGuard flight says in an audiotape recording. "We will circle some more. We've got a pretty sick patient. We may have to just land."

The controller at the Reno-Tahoe airport is believed to have nodded off this morning and was out of communication for approximately 16 minutes. The controller, who was suspended while the Federal Aviation Administration investigates the incident, was the only one on duty handling the few overnight arrivals and departures.

The LifeGuard pilot was in communication with the Northern California Terminal Radar Approach Control and ultimately landed safely without assistance from the Reno tower.

In response to today's incident, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation announced that additional air traffic controllers would be immediately added on the midnight shift at 27 control towers that currently have only one person working overnights -- including Reno.

"I am totally outraged by these incidents. This is absolutely unacceptable," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "The American public trusts us to run a safe system. Safety is our No.1 priority and I am committed to working 24/7 until these problems are corrected."

In an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos on "World News," LaHood added, "I'll be grabbing the agency by the ears. We've done some grabbing today with the outrage that we have expressed and the suspension of this controller and the investigations. And there'll be more to come, George. I guarantee the flying public we will not sleep until we can guarantee that there's good safety in the control towers when these planes are coming in and out of airports."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also expressed outrage today.

"To think that this pilot was forced to land without any controls on the land is very, very scary," Reid said. "This shouldn't happen in Nevada. It shouldn't happen anywhere in our country. It shouldn't happen in any airplane. And it certainly shouldn't happen in an air ambulance."

Last month at Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport, a controller on his fourth consecutive overnight shift left the radio tower silent after apparently falling asleep. Two commercial airliners were forced to land on their own.

The Reagan controller also was the only one on the job during the overnight shift, a practice LaHood immediately changed, ordering a second air traffic controller at Reagan on the midnight shift, but not implementing the change nationally.

A day after the incident at Reagan, Reno-Tahoe International Airport added a second controller to the overnight shift for four nights, but went back to a single controller after consulting with the FAA.