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Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered a second air traffic controller for overnight duty at Reagan National Airport after an incident in which two planes landed without air traffic control guidance. A single air traffic controller was on duty at the time, prompting questions about staffing in the tower that oversees the airspace of the nation’s capital.
- Katheryn Wolfe Reporter, CQ Roll Call
- Steven Lott Vice President for Communications, Air Transport Association
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, we'll be talking with an archeologist working on excavating the former slave quarters at Montpelier, the home of our country's fourth president, James Madison. But first, two planes trying to land at Reagan National Airport early Wednesday morning got no response from the air traffic control tower. They landed on their own safely, but the incident prompted questions about staffing at our region's air traffic control centers.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOnly one controller is on duty after midnight at National, despite the fact that National controls the airspace over the White House and the capital. The incident renews the debate about staffing and safety of air travel. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered two controllers to be on duty at National from now on, and a review is underway of staffing at National and airports nationally. Joining us to discuss this is Steve Lott. He's head of corporate communications for IATA. That is the International Air Transport Association for North America. IATA is how I should pronounce that. Steve Lott, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. STEVEN LOTTGood to be with you. Thank you.
NNAMDIAllow me to start by airing a clip of the pilots involved in the incident at National. This is what one of the pilots had to say.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1American 1900, so you’re aware, the tower is apparently not manned. We’ve made a few phone calls. Nobody is answering. So two airplanes went in in the past 10 to 15 minutes, so you can expect to go in to an uncontrolled airport.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2Is there a reason it’s not manned?
1Well, I’m going to take a guess and say that the controller got locked out. I’ve heard of this happening before.
2That’s the first time I’ve heard it.
1Yeah. Fortunately, it’s not very often, but, yeah, it happened about a year ago, but I’m not sure that’s what happened now. But, anyway, there’s nobody in the tower.
1It is. American 1900, the tower is back in business. So (unintelligible) off.
2That was a close call.
1Wasn't it, though?
NNAMDIAnd there was a reporter from NBC 4 who was traveling on one of those flights last night who said the pilot actually told the passengers that he was receiving no response from air traffic control at Reagan National. Steve Lott, do we know what happened exactly yet?
LOTTNo, well, it's clear that there was no response from the tower, which is obviously concerning. I think the good news -- so there's kind of a good news, bad news situation here. The good news is that you heard the conversation, and that was between the pilot and another controller. That controller is with a regional air traffic control facility. He sits in front of a radarscope about 40 miles outside of Washington. So they weren't flying blind, so to speak. The -- that controller was watching those aircraft over National, was in conversation with those aircraft over radio. So that's the good news.
LOTTBut, certainly, that controller sitting 40 miles outside of Washington can't see what's going on physically at the airport, on the runaway, on the ground. So, you know, that was the concerning part from the pilot's perspective. But, again, the good news is that there's actually -- it's surprising to many people, but there's many, many airports, hundreds of airports, that don't have air traffic control towers.
NNAMDII was about to talk about that. There are a lot of airports that don't have control towers, especially small airports.
LOTTExactly. Many general aviation airports around the country, even a handful right outside of Washington D.C., don't have air traffic control towers. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that there may not warrant -- there may not be enough traffic, but there are clear procedures. Any pilot, whether you're a private pilot or a commercial pilot, there are very clear procedures in place that allow you to land at these airports very safely and under control, using radios to talk to each other.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number here. Do you have safety concerns about flying into our region's airports? You can call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or e-mail to email@example.com. Do we know as yet exactly what happened with the air traffic controller who was supposed to be on duty at Reagan National?
LOTTNo, we don't. That's still under investigation. As of last night, both the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board were going to launch an investigation probably pretty quickly. We'll probably hear an answer pretty soon, because, obviously, there was one individual that was supposed to be on duty. That person didn't respond. So I think we'll get to the bottom of this pretty quickly.
NNAMDIAnd as you mentioned, the pilots were in contact with regional air traffic control center Potomac TRACON, and that regional center uses, it is my understanding, radar, but not precise enough to help the pilot land the plane, that has to do with the pilot's training in that situation.
LOTTYeah. That regional controller is looking at a scope, and it's a pretty broad area. It's as if you were looking at your GPS in your car where you can zoom in and out. So that regional controller has zoomed out, if you will, and he's looking at a wide area surrounding various Washington airports, Washington Dulles, National, even up to Baltimore. So he's looking at a wide area.
LOTTAgain, he could see those aircraft approaching Washington National. He was in conversation with them, so that's a good sign. And you heard actually on the recording, he used the term uncontrolled airport. That's probably a little worrying, but that's actually the pilot term when they mean that there's no tower or there's nobody in the tower. And that was the indication to the pilots that they should use those procedures that they know in order to land safely and approach that airport.
NNAMDII'm just curious. If the reporter from NBC 4 was correct on this, I'm assuming he is, to what extent do regulations allow pilots to tell passengers that they're not receiving a response from air traffic control? It seems to me that in -- some passengers, yours truly, would respond to that in panic.
LOTTAnd that's to the discretion of the pilot. The pilot is certainly free to provide information. As someone in the industry, I actually always appreciate more information, but, obviously, it's under the pilot's discretion.
LOTTExactly. It's under the pilot's discretion to -- hopefully, he or she knows whether or not what they're saying could alert the rest of the passengers.
NNAMDIYou mentioned that there are small airports that have no control tower, and the pilots -- the planes that landed at Reagan National were communicating with each other. How does that work?
LOTTExactly. There's a frequency -- there's a radio channel where they can all talk to each other. So, say, the America plane, the United plane, they can talk to each other and say, okay, I am located in this position. Where are you? And the other person responds and says, well, I'm three miles west of you. So they can talk to each other. And, luckily, I believe the weather conditions were clear, so, in fact, they may have been able to see each other -- at least see the lights of the aircraft. So using that frequency, it's a kind of common frequency that people know to use -- the pilots know to use, and they can talk to each other. They can locate each other and safely land.
LOTTAgain, the two concerning things is that there was nobody with eyes on the ground, so to speak, to see if there was any maintenance being done or any vehicles in the way. The other thing is this is a very secure area. Washington, there are very special procedures, because we're near the capital. We're near the White House. There's military aircraft. There's military helicopters coming in and out of the area all the time. So it's a -- you know, even though there may be only a handful of commercial planes after midnight, there still could be some military operations.
NNAMDIIndeed, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is recommending a second air traffic controller at National. While the traffic overnight, as you pointed out, may not warrant two controllers, it's, I guess, a security issue, since National is responsible for the airspace over the White House and the capital.
LOTTThat's right. For those of us here in Washington, we see low-flying aircraft, and a lot of these, again, could be military. It could be Marine aircraft, Navy aircraft, even Coast Guard going up and down the Potomac River, which lies right next to Washington National Airport. And it's the tower at Washington National that does have control over that airspace. So, again, luckily, that's a quiet -- a very, very quiet time for the airport. I think the two aircraft that landed during that period where the tower was out was only two of three aircraft that would land between midnight and 5 a.m. So it was a very, very quiet time. But, again, that doesn't necessarily answer why we had this problem.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Steve Lott. He's head of corporate communications for IATA, the International Air Transport Association for North America. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Despite tough economic times, should air travel be regulated more closely because of the aforementioned safety issues? 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org. The Washington Post reports that this is not the first time the tower at National has gone silent.
LOTTThere's been a lot of focus, and I don't have the exact numbers, but there's been a lot of focus lately on air traffic controllers, on -- there's been reports of some near misses, and that's a bit of a tricky term, too, but aircraft got closer than they should have. And, again, there's responsibility of the air traffic controllers. There's responsibility of the pilots. And, obviously, there's a lot of redundant systems that make the system safe, but we don't want to hear anything related to a near-miss or the fact that, you know, we tried to call the tower, and nobody was there. Nobody was home. So, you know, certainly, we want to tackle these as quickly as possible and try to address the situation.
NNAMDIHere is Eric in Sandy Spring, Md. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERICYeah. Good afternoon, I just -- I heard about this, and I read about it in the paper this morning. And just want to say, you know, it's a very serious situation any time that -- I'm a commercial pilot, and any time you do not get a response from air traffic control, being in a commercial airline or being a commercial pilot, you're -- it surely makes you wonder what's going on and it becomes a serious situation, especially at that critical phase of flying when you're coming in to land at an airport such as Reagan National, I mean, it's, you know, they say, yes, pilots of commercial flights land at airports that are uncontrolled all the time, but those airports primarily are not in the, you know, center of the most powerful city in the world, essentially.
ERICAnd the fact that this has happened twice raises serious concerns about procedures at National. Certainly, at a minimum, the staffing needs to be increased and -- but the pilots handled it exactly as they've been trained to do, and I don't think that the safety of those passengers were ever in any serious jeopardy at any time during that flight. But had this been, you know, 7 o'clock in the morning or 6 o'clock in the evening, it would have been a completely different story, and, you know, the pilots handled it perfectly. And, you know, my hats off to them as a fellow commercial pilot.
ERICAnd, you know, if a pilot fell asleep on the job twice in his career, he'd probably be looking for a new career. So maybe the air traffic controller who fell asleep or was not at his post should, you know, seriously think about that. And the ultimate responsibility of all flights anywhere in the United States comes down to the pilot in command. So if something had happened, trust me, the person that was in the most jeopardy of their job or life was the pilot, so.
NNAMDIAnd we'll be finding out more about exactly what happened at Reagan National after midnight on Tuesday, I am sure, in the coming days. We move on to Jennifer in Washington D.C. Eric, thank you so much for your call and that reassurance. Jennifer, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENNIFERWell, thanks, Kojo. I would like to know how many overnight controllers are either at BWI or Dulles.
JENNIFER(unintelligible) to me, that...
NNAMDIYeah. How National compares to other airports like BWI, Dulles or, for that matter, New York and Atlanta? We know that the noise issue at National airport has been a problem for some time, so I think they tend to close down a little earlier than other airports. But here's Steve Lott.
LOTTYeah. And that's a good question. There are -- correct, at Washington National, it's a bit unique. One is that it's largely a domestic airport. There's flights only domestically within the United States. There's a few to Canada, but that's about it. Now, it doesn't mean that it closes overnight. There's always a controller on duty. As Kojo said, there's also noise restrictions. So, generally, you won't see many takeoffs after roughly 10:00, 10:30 at night until about 6:00 in the morning. So that's why it's a very, very quite time. You see little to no operations. Baltimore and Dulles are a bit different. Washington Dulles truly runs a 24-hour operation. Again, it does slow down overnight, but you will see flights come and go. It's an international airport. There's flights coming from all over the world at many odd hours.
LOTTSo the tower at Washington Dulles is open 24 hours, and the same for Baltimore. Baltimore is open 24 hours as well. So many of the large airports, again, their towers will be open 24 hours, but you may have, you know, very limited operations, which leads the FAA to make decisions about how much staffing they will have. But again, Washington National is far different from a New York JFK or an LAX, where you literally have a true 24 operation, where every hour of the day you have flights coming and going.
NNAMDIJennifer, thank you for your call.
NNAMDIAfter some reported near misses in our region last summer and the crash in Buffalo in 2009, there were discussions about fatigue and scheduling of air traffic controllers and pilots. Will this incident tend to restart that debate?
LOTTI think it will, Kojo. You had -- you're correct. We -- and it can be a very contentious issue because you have various parties here. You have, for example, the fatigue issue with pilots. You have -- the pilots have certainly -- certain ideas and views. You have the airlines which have views, and you have the regulators which have views. In the wake of that Buffalo accident, there's actually now -- the FAA has proposed changes to rest times and rest periods.
LOTTAnd they have new regulations on minimum training and the minimum number of hours for a pilot. So that's being debated right now in Washington. And then, again, for the controllers, same idea. There's gonna be questions about proper staffing, proper rest periods, how long should they stay on a job before they take a break. These are all questions, again, that I think are gonna resurface and come to light. And it can be a sensitive and often contentious issue between the different groups.
NNAMDIThere's been a lot of talk over the past couple of years about the retirement of air traffic controllers hired after the 1981 strike. Is there a shortage of air traffic controllers?
LOTTNo. I don't think we need to worry about a safety issue. There was a warning that came out a few years ago, and it was a very real concern about a influx, a spike in the number of retirements of controllers. Like you said, these were all the controllers that were hired after the strike in the early '80s. All those controllers have reached the age of retirement, so there was a need, a bit of a wakeup call that we need to start hiring and training controllers. But it shouldn't be a concern now.
LOTTThere are a lot of young controllers that are coming on the job, being trained as we speak. So that shouldn't be a concern. I think the biggest debate will be about staffing levels.
NNAMDIJoining us now by telephone is Katheryn Wolfe. Katheryn covers aviation and other transportation issues on the Hill for CQ Roll Call. Katheryn, thank you for joining us.
MS. KATHERYN WOLFEThank you.
NNAMDIToday, the big story about the FAA is what happened at Reagan National Airport. But up on Capitol Hill, the big FAA story is the reauthorization bill, which seems to have been under consideration, well, forever.
WOLFEUnfortunately, yes. I think I've been covering this bill now in various forms for the past four years, the same bill. They haven't -- they've had some problems getting it done. Ironically, one of the problems is related to something totally different about Reagan National. So -- but the good news is that the Senate passed their bill, and the House looks like they're gonna be moving on their bill next week. So there is some progress being made.
NNAMDIYou mentioned one of the issues was about Reagan National. What was that?
WOLFEThere -- you know, this bill, it's a regular bill, meaning that they typically do this bill, this FAA reauthorization bill, once about every four years. They haven't been able to do that the past four years because they've had other problems. So one of the things that's held up its progress relates to flights -- long-distance flights at National. And you've basically got businesses and members of Congress from the Western and Southwestern states that are growing really quickly, and they want more access, more flights into National because it's so much closer than BWI or Dulles.
WOLFEAnd, unfortunately, from their perspective, National is constrained in the amount of flights that -- from long-distance flights that it can have because it's really not intended to be a long-haul airport. That -- those flights are intended to go into Dulles or BWI. And so, there's typically a fight on this bill over whether or not to expand the amount of long-distance flights at National.
NNAMDII've seen reports that the reauthorization bill will cut the FAA budget back by more than $4 billion to 2008 levels. What areas will this affect?
WOLFEI don't know that that's the case. This particular bill, there may be -- I think you're talking about the continuing resolution, the appropriations level. I don't think that's the case in this particular reauthorization bill. I believe that -- I think there's about $60 billion -- yeah, $59.7 billion for the House bill which is -- it's not -- I would not say that's a cut to '08 levels.
WOLFEI think we're talking about different things.
NNAMDII understand there are hearings in the House next week. What can we expect there?
WOLFEWell, they're not -- there's not a hearing in the House. They're considering the bill in the House. Although, I would say it's not unreasonable to expect hearings about this particular topic of controller staffing levels and also controller fatigue. I mean, it implicates both really. But in terms of what's happening next week in the House, there should be taking up the bill on the House floor and probably passing it. And then after that's done, they'll have to go to conference between the House and the Senate to finalize the version.
NNAMDIAnd you're saying that we could expect to see some hearings that will directly address this Reagan National issue.
WOLFEYeah. I haven't...
WOLFEI mean, I haven't seen anything -- notice about that, but Congress typically is really interested in these issues. Of course, it's a big safety issue. You wanna make sure that your air traffic controllers are adequate for the task in every way that that could possibly be. There were actually a series of hearings in '08 about this very topic, about whether or not we're -- have adequate staffing and also about, as Steve mentioned, about this sort of retirement wave that's coming on people that were hired right after the PATCO strike.
WOLFEAnd I would take a bit of exception with Steve's assertion that this is sort of over. I remember in those '08 hearings, the DOT's inspector general saying that this is going to be a significant challenge for the FAA for the next 10 years, and that was in '08.
NNAMDISo it may not be over. Katheryn Wolfe covers aviation and other transportation issues on the Hill for CQ Roll Call. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDISteve Lott is head of corporate communications at IATA, the International Air Transport Association for North America. Steve, thank you for joining us.
LOTTMy pleasure. Good to be with you.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, the first in our two-week series on local archaeology with a dig on Montpelier and what it's telling us about America's fourth president, James Madison, his family and the slaves who lived there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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