An air traffic controller at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport likely fell asleep during his shift on Wednesday night and has been suspended, according to the New York Times.
The employee, whose name has not been released, was on duty at a little past midnight and was the only person in the watch tower. Usually, only experienced supervisors are assigned one-person overnight shifts at the Washington airport, according to the news source.
“The [Federal Aviation Administration] FAA is thoroughly investigating Wednesday’s early morning incidents at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s control tower. 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," Randy Babbitt, the FAA's administrator.
As a result of the unresponsive controller, two planes landed without making contact with the tower. Both planes – an American Airlines flight traveling from Dallas and a United Airlines Airbus from Chicago – landed by making contact with another control facility 50 miles away.
About 165 people were aboard the two planes and there were no injuries from the incident.
According to Wired News, the controller admitted to the National Transportation Safety Board that he had fallen asleep for a total of about 24 minutes. There are safety measures in place that would provide backup to such incidents, such as the alternate air traffic controllers stationed elsewhere.
The suspended air traffic controller has been on the job for about 20 years and is considered a veteran, according to Reuters.