A second air-traffic supervisor in a week has been suspended, for what aviation regulators called “totally inappropriate” actions that brought a Southwest Airlines flight too close to a small private plane as they flew near Orlando, the Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday night.
The pilots on Southwest Flight 821 were so close to the single-engine plane at about 5 p.m. on Sunday that they could see two people in the cockpit, the FAA said.
The incident comes after a supervisor controlling traffic at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport fell asleep for at least 24 minutes shortly after midnight on March 23. Two airliners landed at the airport before the controller was awakened, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
The NTSB also is investigating the latest incident, spokesman Terry Williams said. The NTSB had just begun its investigation and was not ready to release any details, Williams said.
“By placing this passenger aircraft in close proximity to another plane, the air-traffic controller compromised the safety of everyone involved,” 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 supervisor in Florida, who was working at the air-traffic facility that handles traffic in a roughly 50-mile radius around Orlando, directed the Southwest jet to fly next to the Cirrus SR22 and check on it because its pilots had not responded to radio calls from air traffic for more than an hour.
The Southwest jet, which was carrying 137 passengers and five crewmembers, descended from 12,000 feet altitude to get a closer look at the smaller plane flying at 11,000 feet, the FAA said. A short time later, it veered away from the Cirrus and made a normal landing at Orlando International Airport. Flight 821 originated in Phoenix, airline spokeswoman Brandy King said.
About 30 seconds after being approached by the Southwest jet, the pilots on the Cirrus contacted controllers on the radio. The FAA did not say how close the two aircraft came.
While pilots occasionally check on other unresponsive flights and report back to controllers, the rules were not followed in this case, the FAA said.
LAST WEEK: Lapse at air tower leads to ‘outrage’
SAFETY: Controller fatigue is ongoing concern
Most controllers wouldn’t ask an airliner to check on another plane, but it would be justified in an emergency, retired controller Gary Brittain said. Air-traffic rules allow planes to fly in close proximity, but the pilot must agree to take responsibility for staying separated, Brittain said.
The FAA announcement of the incident did not say whether the pilot and controller had such a discussion.
FAA air-traffic operations have been under a microscope since the two jets landed at Reagan National while the controller was asleep.
The landings raised numerous questions about the late-night shifts that controllers work and about the safety and security of directing planes to land at a major commercial airport without a controller. The controller who fell asleep was working his fourth straight overnight shift, the NTSB said.