In my earlier career, I ran call centers for alarm companies that provided 24/7 response to burglary and fire alarm systems and their customers. In order to compete in that market, we had to gain certifications from Underwriters Laboratories, a fine private-sector response to the need for quality control that is a subject for another day. One of the basic UL requirements was to make sure that at least two people were in the call center at all times, in order to make sure that anyone falling asleep or losing consciousness would not disable the response center entirely. Centers got annual inspections, and I had to provide proof that our staffing never fell below that two-person minimum.
And that was to ensure proper response to alarms. Imagine my surprise to find out that Reagan National’s airport tower in Washington DC provides only one person in the tower for the graveyard shift. I wasn’t the only one surprised, either:
The control tower at Reagan National Airport went silent early Wednesday, forcing the pilots of two airliners carrying a total of 165 passengers and crew members to land on their own.
he tower, which normally is staffed by one air-traffic controller from midnight to 6 a.m., did not respond to pilot requests for landing assistance or to phone calls from controllers elsewhere in the region, who also used a “shout line,” which pipes into a loudspeaker in the tower, internal records show.
An American Airlines Boeing 737 flying in from Miami with 97 people on board circled the airport after receiving no response from the tower at midnight. Minutes later, a United Airlines Airbus 320 flying in from Chicago with 68 people on board also got no answer from the tower.
Both planes landed safely after their pilots took matters into their own hands, broadcasting their progress as they approached and landed. They also were communicating with controllers at a separate facility in the region that does not handle landings.
This isn’t some dusty airstrip out in the boonies used by crop dusters and hobby pilots. This is the airport that sits on the outskirts of the Pentagon, in our nation’s capital, adjacent a booming business district and no small amount of residential homes. I usually fly in and out of Reagan when visiting DC, although I normally fly during normal business and evening hours. In the future, I’ll make that a requirement, as you might imagine.
Is it too much to ask that an airport tower adhere to the same requirements as a professional alarm center in terms of staffing? Maybe we should put UL in charge of inspecting airport towers instead of the FAA.