The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the incident at the Arlington, Va., airport in which the control tower was quiet in the early hours Wednesday and pilots of two incoming airplanes were forced to land on their own.
"The FAA is thoroughly investigating Wednesday's early morning incidents at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport's control tower," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement Thursday. "While that is taking place, we have suspended the air traffic controller from all operational duties. I am determined to get to the bottom of this situation for the safety of the traveling public."
Babbitt, a former airline pilot, said he was "personally outraged" about the tower going quiet just after midnight Wednesday.
"Fortunately, at no point was either plane out of radar contact and our backup system kicked in to ensure the safe landing of both airplanes," Babbitt's statement said.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered two air-traffic controllers to staff the airport from midnight to 6 a.m. and instructed the FAA to examine staffing levels at other U.S. airports, a LaHood statement said.
The two flights -- an American Airlines Boeing 737 from Miami with 97 passengers and crew members on board and a United Airlines Airbus A320 from Chicago carrying 68 people -- landed safely on their own, within minutes of each other, shortly after midnight Wednesday after trying to contact the control tower and receiving no response, officials said.
During the approach, the pilots communicated with controllers at a separate regional facility that does not handle landings, officials said.
A recording of a conversation from a controller at the Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control to a third flight, American Flight 1900 from Dallas-Fort Worth, said, "So you're aware, the tower is apparently not manned."
"We've made a few phone calls, nobody's answering, so two airplanes went in in the past 10 to 15 minutes, so you can expect to go in as an uncontrolled airport," the recording monitored by United Press International said.
About 90 seconds later, the controller told the pilot "the tower's back in business," so the pilot approaching for a 1:10 a.m. landing could land normally, the recording indicated.
The tower was staffed by one controller from midnight to 6 a.m. The unidentified lone controller that night, a veteran of the business, later acknowledged "he may have been dozing" when the incoming jetliners prepared to land, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The incident, which the National Transportation Safety Board was also reviewing, is the second time in two years the National tower went silent, The Washington Post reported.
The earlier time, the lone controller on duty left his swipe-card passkey behind when he stepped outside the tower's secure door and was unable to get back in, the Post said.
The Potomac controller in the recording monitored by UPI mentioned that incident when the American pilot approaching the airport asked why the National tower was not staffed.
"Well, I'm going to take a guess and say that the controller got locked out," the controller said. "I've heard of this happening before."
"That's the first time I've heard it," the pilot said.
"Yes, fortunately, it's not very often," the controller said. "But, yeah, it happened about a year ago. I'm not sure that's what happened now, but anyway there's nobody in the tower."
"Interesting," the pilot said.
The greatest risk posed by silence from the tower was on the ground rather than in the air, the Post said. Planes routinely land in smaller airports without guidance from a tower.
Air-traffic controllers direct more than 1.5 million flights annually in the Washington area.