LaHood: Bad air control incidents "ridiculous"

air traffic controller
AP Photo/David Goldman

This time it was not a nap, but a movie.

The FAA says early Sunday morning, a controller inside the Cleveland air traffic center was watching a DVD rather than his radar screen.

That's not all. For about three minutes, audio from the suspense thriller "Cleaner," starring Samuel L. Jackson, was accidentally broadcast to nearby air traffic.

The controller's microphone was stuck in the "transmit" position, meaning pilots heard the movie and the controller heard no incoming calls. CBS News correspondent Bob Orr spoke with Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about the incident.

"It's totally ridiculous. It's totally outrageous. It's totally unprofessional," LaHood said.

This incident comes as the FAA is cracking down on controller inattention. In the past two months, nine air traffic handlers have been suspended: Two, including a supervisor, were suspended for the Cleveland movie caper; Seven others were suspended in an outbreak of napping.

Controllers have been found dozing on the job in Seattle, Reno, Lubbock, Knoxville, Miami and Washington.

In response, the FAA has beefed up staffing on overnight schedules, added an hour of rest between shifts, and has repeatedly put controllers on notice.

La Hood has called this behavior outrageous and said it won't stand, yet it continues to happen, leaving some to wonder if these people are not getting the message.

"When that happens, controllers will be suspended, investigations will be conducted, and in some instances controllers will lose their jobs," LaHood told CBS News.

Air traffic veterans, who have long complained about understaffing, insist 99 percent of controllers are professional and attentive, though overnight shifts and fatigue are a challenge.

"They stay awake by trying to read a book that's interesting or - or going to get 5 cups of coffee, drinking a Red Bull," said Derek Bittman, an air traffic controller."Just a simple little mind game you can play, like a crossword or something like that helps you keep awake."

No controller has yet been fired as investigations continue. In the meantime, public confidence in air safety has been undermined, and somebody clearly will pay a price.