Reagan National Airport air traffic controller silence chat with Michael Krzak, aviation attorney

Mar 24, 2011

Aviation lawyer Michael S. Krzak answered questions about possible legal consequences of an air traffic controller disappearing from the control tower at Reagan National Airport, leaving two planes to take landing into their own hands. Read today's article:

Greetings from cold and overcast Chicago.

If the controller was in fact asleep, what sort of retribution could he or she face? Will the FAA or anyone else release his or her name?

Very recent news articles have indicated that the controller has been suspended.  Pending the thorough investigation that the NTSB/FAA will do, the controller may be further disciplined depending on what the circumstances of the investigation show.  Historically, the identity of the controller will become known at some point down the line. 

Further, FAA Order 7210.3 Section 2-5-4sub-pard (d) provides:  Supervisors shall not condone or permit individuals to sleep while on duty.  Any such instance shall be handled in accordance with the Human Resource Policy Manual (HRPM), Standards of conduct. 

Shouldn't there always be a back-up controller at the station?

Schedules at various towers are governed by the Federal Aviation Regulations.  One such regulation is the FAA Order 7210.3, Section 2-5-1 which governs the basic watch schedules.  Depending on the work-load at various hours they have discretion under that regulation and others on how many controllers are in a tower, given the volume of air traffic and the work-load for that time-period.  It would seem prudent to have 2 controllers at all times in a facility such as Reagan. 

How often does something like this happen?

Reported cases of this are rare. 

Truly unbelievable, yet so predictable. We (the greatest nation in the world) are not investing in infrastructure (I'd argue this is part of that), nor maintaining / improving it, but we have created the greatest war machine (military industrial complex) in recorded history.  Not to be crass, but what the heck happens if the poor controller has a terrible case of food poisoning, has to go to the bathroom or a family emergency, etc etc? What is the contingency plan for such situations?

There are procedures outlined in the Federal Aviation Regulations for emergency situations which govern the conduct of all FAA controllers.

Not to diminish the fact that this is a very serious lapse in ATC operations, but... uncontrolled landings aren't as unsafe as a lot of laypeople probably believe. Pilots are taught to land at uncontrolled airports from almost the first week of flight school; it is orderly, precise, and self-controlled. The pilots circled, assessed the current traffic, and made a decision to land. None of the passengers were in any real elevated danger. Now, if the traffic was busier, that's a different story. They likely would have diverted to another airport.

While this is true, there is an expectation at this airport that there will be a controller in the tower.  The Tower is responsible for communicating with those on the ground who may be moving equipment on the ground.   There could have been a runway incursion that could have had disastorous results here.  Fortunately, there was not. 

What's the possibility that the controller could be criminally prosecuted for reckless endangerment or some other offense? Are controllers ever found liable under civil law for negligence?

Historically, it is doubtful that criminal charges are brought against controllers. 

How common is it to have one controller in the tower at a major airport at any given time? This seems unimaginable to me. There is obviously an irreducible minimum rate of error within a system controlled by humans, which is why there are so many redundancies (presumably including multiple controllers). How can the industry continue to cut corners and keep people safe?

During periods of heavy air traffic, it is not common to have one controller in the tower.  Unfortunately, history has shown that because of budgetary concerns at some towers, they are sometimes manned by only a single controller during periods of less air traffic.

Did one of the pilots actually tell passengers that he had to go around because no one was in the tower? Plenty of people have flying anxiety - I hope this isn't true, I can't imagine how terrified some of them would have been, and I don't think that was necessary on the part of the pilot. Would the airline or FAA have any recourse against him (again, if that's true) for giving out too much information?

I am not aware of the pilot telling the passengers that the tower was un-manned.  The flip-side of your question is that some passengers may be more anxious if they didn't know what was going on.  Either way, the pilot on this plane appears to have followed all of the required protocols and procedures in place and land the plane safely. 

Have you come across this type of behavior in your practice of law?

Yes.  Mid-air collisions have occurred due to controllers failing to comply with the provisions of FAA Order 7110.65, which prescribes all of the air traffic control procedures and phraseology for use by personel providing air traffic control services.   The primary purpose of  the Air Traffic Control System is to prevent a collision between aircraft operating in the system and to organize and expedite the flow of air traffic.   This can't be effectively done if Air Traffic Controllers are not diligent and compliant with the procedures laid out in these regulations. 

"Supervisors shall not condone or permit individuals to sleep while on duty." So this also means the supervisor failed to supervise properly. What's happening to that person?

When it's a midnight shift and there is only one person on duty, it is typically a supervisor that is on duty.  The FAA needs to re-evaluate staffing in towers address these concerns. 

Do you think this is a legitimate safety issue? Or do you think that it strikes at people as just being lazy. My first reaction was typical lazy employee asleep at the job. Similar to the TSA agent at Newark who was asleep at the exit. I think it is irresponsible, but listening to those ATC tapes the pilots didn't seem that stressed.

Good pilots are trained to be able to adapt and adjust under any circumstances.  Pilots do rely on the Tower to be their eyes for runway incursions, and it is the Air Traffic Controller's duty to scan the runways for aircraft to prevent collisions.  These duties are found at FAA Order 7110.65 Section 2-10-3.

A commenter (claimed to be a pilot with DCA experience) to the WaPo story raised an interesting point - did the Potomac Approach controller have the information and/or authority to tell the pilot that DCA was uncontrolled to and go ahead and land. Given the security situation in DC, do the rules really allow that without verification that there is not a security problem?

I'm fairly confident there are protocols in place that are not available because they contain Sensitive Security Information, and as such are not available to anybody who does not have a clearance. 

Do you think air traffic controllers should be provided with more caffeine through the day? What would the merits of an awake but excessively caffeinated air traffic controller be versus one that is asleep? Are there alternate methods being contemplated to keep air traffic controllers conscious?

There are regulations in place FAA Order 7210.3, section 2-6-7, for example, that relate to the work-load and permissible scheduling of Air Traffic Controllers.  If an Air Traffic Controller is not adequately rested, he should report this and take the day off, not rely on caffeine to get him or her through the day.  

I'm a retired Air Traffic controller and if the shifts I worked, at the 7th busiest tower in the world, I want the mid-shift controllers to take a cat-nap for a brief period to ensure they are alert when they need to be. I suspect the controller worked from 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM then returned for duty after 8 hours to work from 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM. To have a single person on duty is asking for trouble. This very same thing happened at RDU Tower and the Controller spent 2 weeks on the street. Thank goodness in both instances they did not have Heart Attacks or something else....

I agree with this sound opinion of a seasoned, conscientious former Air Traffic Controller.  Thank you for your service.  As I indicated earlier, the FAA truly needs to review the regulations that are in place. 

Thanks to all for your good questions and comments on this very serious issue.  I am signing out from Chicago. 

In This Chat
Michael Krzak
Michael S. Krzak, a partner in Clifford Law Offices in Chicago, tackles the highly complex area of aviation litigation and commercial aviation liability. He has been involved in every commercial aviation crash case the firm has handled since he came to the firm, including the crash of American Eagle Flight 4184, Alaska Air Flight 261, American Airlines Flight 587, TWA Flight 800, Swiss Air Flight 111, USAir Flight 427, American Airlines Flight 585 and the Southwest Airlines crash at Midway Airport in December, 2005. He has served as the Chair and Vice Chair of the Chicago Bar Association Aviation Law Committee in 2006-07, and has spoken to numerous legal organizations, including the American Bar Association, about this area of law.
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