Air traffic controller slept on job in Reno

The FAA control tower at Reagan National Airport, where an air traffic controller admitted falling asleep in March. A similar incident occurred in Reno, Nev., Wednesday. AP Photo/Cliff Owen

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A medical flight with at least three people aboard was forced to land overnight without help from air traffic control after the lone controller on duty didn't respond to repeated contacts from the plane and airport staff, the chief executive of a Nevada airport said Wednesday.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that the controller was out of communication for approximately 16 minutes, and has been suspended while the FAA investigates.

It was at least the fourth incident this year at one of the nation's airports where an air traffic controller was found to have slept on the job at night, with the others occurring in Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Knoxville, Tenn..

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement he was "totally outraged" at the spate of sleeping-on-the-job incidents.

"This is absolutely unacceptable," LaHood said. "The American public trusts us to run a safe system."

The incidents have all occurred at airports where only one air traffic controller was on duty late at night. As a result, the FAA announced that it will "immediately...place an additional air traffic controller on the midnight shift at 27 control towers around the country that are currently staffed with only one controller during that time."

Reno-Tahoe International Airport chief Krys Bart told The Associated Press no one was hurt in the Reno incident about 2 a.m.

Bart said she was told one air traffic controller was on duty in the tower at the time.

In a highly publicized incident in late March, an air traffic controller at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., admitted falling asleep on the job.

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A follow-up investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration uncovered a second incident of an air traffic controller sleeping on the job in February during the midnight shift at McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tenn.

The National Transportation Safety Board has opened its own investigation into the various incidents, and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has added yet another investigation.

The Piper Cheyenne plane involved in the Nevada incident is a twin engine turboprop with seating for five.

Airport staff heard the pilot trying to contact the tower and then tried to contact the tower themselves, Bart said.

"The pilot evaluated the airfield. The weather was clear. The aircraft did land without incident," she said.

It was not immediately clear where the flight was coming from.

Bart said the airport, which serves the Reno, Carson City and Lake Tahoe areas, opened a new air traffic control tower in October 2010.

She said the airport has three runways, including two with modern instrument landing and lighting systems.

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.

On Monday, the world's largest commercial jet airliner clipped a much smaller commuter plane on a dark, wet tarmac at New York City's Kennedy Airport, spinning it like a toy as hundreds of passengers sat in both planes. No one was injured.

The two jets -- an Airbus A380 operated by Air France and a Bombardier CRJ700 regional jet -- were towed away after the collision around 8 p.m. Monday and will be inspected to determine the extent of their damage, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said.

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