Hello? Is anyone there?! (yea, I know this is not a shot of DCA, but let's pretend)

Hello? Is anyone there?! (yea, I know this is not a shot of DCA, but let's pretend)

Being able to talk to the tower when you want to land at a large airport, just miles away from the nation’s capital, is a good thing. Not being able to talk to traffic control when two airliners are trying to land is not.

Early Wednesday morning, a United Airlines and an American Airlines flight were unable to reach the control tower at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington DC. After the American flight aborted their landing and circled the airport, both landed while talking to a regional tower and announcing their actions to any other aircraft that might be in the area.

There was only one controller on duty and federal investigators are seeing if that controller might have fallen asleep. Since this happened between midnight and 1am, there wasn’t much traffic, but it is still an unsafe situation. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has asked the FAA to require two controllers be on duty at DCA in the future.

To learn more and get quotes from an airline pilot, United Airlines, the FAA and others, check out my story on AOL Travel News.

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: david@airlinereporter.com

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This is a story mainly because it was at National Airport (DCA). Most control towers across the country have published hours which are not 24 hours. After hours, they become like any non-towered airport. Pilots are trained to handle that just fine. Even student pilots, before they can get their Private Pilot license, have to learn how to communicate on the radio with other pilots for use of runways at non-towered fields. That part is not the big deal. Just about anyone can learn to do that fairly quickly.

The awkward situation at DCA is the security. It’s DC. Security regulations force passengers to be seated 30 minutes before landing or after takeoff at that airport. When the first pilot found the tower not responding, he did the right thing to execute a missed approach (“go around”) and go back to talk to approach control. As far as he knew, he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a problem with his own aircraft’s radios. (There are procedures for that too.)

When approach told him (and subsequent pilots) that the tower also wasn’t answering the phone, the pilots knew to handle it like any other non-towered airport. Approach control had already sequenced the flights for arrival. And the pilots know how to land their planes. The system has multiple safety backups which worked.

So the question we all want to know – where was the DCA controller. I don’t necessarily agree with calls to fire him/her. Any plan involving people that fails to account for human nature is eventually sure to fail – and that’s what happened. Secretary LaHood is taking the right reaction to require 2 controllers to be on duty. That will address the unique issues for DCA.

Very good points Ian. Thanks for sharing.



I agree with Ian, above. Unattended towers – and Commercial Operations – are nothing new. The pilots took exactly the proper actions – and more – in this case. Yes, the backup, standard protocols work. Not great for a busy field, but they DO work.
I do NOT know what happened to the on-duty controller, any more than anyone else does. I’m not willing to speculate until I hear from him or the formal investigation. Those who guess are – what should I say? I can guess too, but it is without factual basis. Ordering a minimum TWO controllers per shift is a no-brainer for this vital tower. That they did not *already* have two+ at all times is another example of shame – *Double Shame* on the FAA. It was not the controller who was -perhaps- asleep at the switch, but FAA’s Management, overseeing one of the most vital towers in the nation, low traffic or not. Shame, FAA! Very serious SHAME!

Having at least two controllers in the tower per shift is a common sense. I understand that people are trying to save money anywhere these days, but, at the same time, I believe the safety of passengers should be a priority.

I’m not sure what difference having two people in the tower would make Jay. There are two people in the cockpit of most planes, but they still fall asleep at the same time regularly, as we saw a couple of time last year.

Well if there is only one guy in the tower but he has to go to the bathroom either he is going to wet himself or the plane has to land on his own.

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