WASHINGTON - An air traffic supervisor has been suspended as the result of an incident in central Florida over the weekend in which a Southwest Airlines jet and a small plane came too close together, putting both planes in danger, the Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday.
It is the second suspension in less than a week of an air traffic supervisor working as a controller. In the previous case, a supervisor the lone controller on duty overnight acknowledged falling asleep while two airliners landed without assistance at Reagan National Airport.
In the latest incident, a supervisor at the agency's radar facility in central Florida that handles airport approaches on Sunday asked the pilots of a Southwest Airlines flight for help determining the status of a private plane that had been out of radio contact for over an hour, FAA said in a statement.
The single-engine, four-seat Cirrus SR22 was on course for Kissimmee, Fla., and maintaining altitude at 11,000 feet, but had not responded to repeated contact attempts from controllers, the agency said.
Southwest Flight 821, a Boeing 737, was 10 miles behind the Cirrus at about 12,000 feet and heading for Orlando International Airport, the FAA said. The supervisor asked the Southwest crew whether they could visually check the cockpit of the Cirrus. The Southwest crew agreed, was directed toward the Cirrus and reported the aircraft in sight, the agency said.
The Southwest pilots reported seeing two people in the cockpit, and then turned away, the FAA said. About 30 seconds later the Cirrus contacted controllers at a radar center in Jacksonville. Both planes landed safely at their destinations.
However, a preliminary investigation of the incident shows the planes came too close together in violation of FAA regulations, the agency said. FAA officials declined to say how close the planes were.
"By placing this passenger aircraft in close proximity to another plane, the air traffic controller compromised the safety of everyone involved. This incident was totally inappropriate," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said. "We are reviewing the air traffic procedures used here and making sure everyone understands the protocols for contacting unresponsive aircraft."
The Southwest plane, which originated in Phoenix, was carrying 137 passengers and five crew members, said Whitney Eichinger, a spokeswoman for the airline.
The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation into the incident, board spokesman Terry Williams said.
Last week, the NTSB sent the FAA a letter recommending against assigning supervisors to work as controllers at the same time they are supposed to be supervising controllers.
The two incidents indicate "the FAA needs to do a major self-assessment of how they're managing the air traffic control work force," said John Goglia, a former NTSB board member.
Under no circumstances would it be reasonable to bring a passenger airline close enough to a small plane that airline pilots could see into the cockpit, he said. The larger plane could have disrupted the air flow around the smaller, causing an accident, he said.
The incidents "do call into question the training that's given to supervisors and their thought processes," Goglia said.