Chairman Rockefeller Remarks on Air Traffic Control Safety Oversight

May 24, 2011

Chairman Rockefeller asks Sec. Locke questions about strengthening manufacturing in America.WASHINGTON, D.C.—Good afternoon and thank you, Senator Cantwell. This is Senator Cantwell’s first hearing as Chairwoman of the Aviation Subcommittee. She’s picked a timely and important topic. 

Today, we’re here to talk about the safety of our air traffic control system. In the last two months, a series of alarming letdowns by controllers have shined a bright light onto a job that usually works best when we don’t hear anything about it.

In February, a Knoxville air traffic controller went to sleep while working the midnight shift. He made a bed on the floor with couch pillows and abandoned his station so he could catch some shuteye.

A month later, a controller at our national airport just across the Potomac River fell asleep on the job. Pilots coming in for a landing got radio silence when they contacted the air traffic control tower and had to land without that controller’s guidance.

Other incidents of sleeping controllers have since been reported in Seattle, Orlando Cleveland, Miami, Lubbock and Reno.

Let’s be clear on one thing here and now: it’s unacceptable for a controller to fall asleep on the job. If they do, they should be removed immediately. That part is non-negotiable. Someone 5,000 feet in the air should never wonder if the controller on the ground has nodded off. 

Air traffic controllers have a unique role. They handle runway traffic, police the skies and must have eagle-eye attention. I have enormous respect for air traffic controllers, most of whom work hard and are dedicated, outstanding professionals. We shouldn’t tarnish the whole profession based on the poor judgment of a few. 

But that’s exactly why we are here today. We can’t allow recent questions about the safety of the FAA to permeate air travel.

I commend Administrator Babbitt for taking strong action and hope the witnesses here today can shed some light on these shortcomings and make certain these issues won’t happen again. 

I’d like to thank the witnesses for taking the time to be here today, and I look forward to your testimony.