Aviation News

March 30, 2011

FAA Suspends Controller After Southwest Jet Close Call Over Florida

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Written by: BNO News
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Federal investigators have suspended an air traffic controller in Florida after giving instructions to a Southwest Airlines passenger plane to check on an unresponsive small airplane, causing them to fly too close to each other.

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are both investigating the incident, which happened on Sunday near Orlando International Airport and involved Southwest Airlines flight 821, a Boeing 737.

According to a preliminary investigation, Southwest 821 was about 10 miles (16 kilometers) in trial of a Cirrus SR22 aircraft that had been out of radio contact for more than an hour. The Cirrus was on course for Kissimmee Gateway Airport in Florida and was maintaining altitude at 11,000 feet (3.3 kilometers).

Air traffic controllers at Jacksonville Center had repeatedly tried to contact the Cirrus without success, and a controller then asked the Southwest crew if they could check the cockpit of the small aircraft. The Southwest crew agreed, was directed towards the Cirrus and reported the aircraft in sight.

The Southwest pilots reported seeing two people in the cockpit. The Southwest flight turned away and the air traffic controller then vectored the aircraft for its arrival at Orlando International Airport. Approximately thirty seconds later, the Cirrus contacted Jacksonville Center who gave them the current frequency. Both aircraft landed safely at their destinations.

“By placing this passenger aircraft in close proximity to another plane, the air traffic controller compromised the safety of everyone involved. This incident was totally inappropriate,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. “We are reviewing the air traffic procedures used here and making sure everyone understands the protocols for contacting unresponsive aircraft.”

Preliminary information indicates that there was a loss of required separation between the two aircraft, violating FAA rules. The FAA has suspended the air traffic controller, who is a supervisor, while the incident is being investigated.

It is the second incident involving an air traffic controller in less than a week. Last Wednesday, the NTSB opened an investigation after the sole air traffic controller at Washington Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) near Washington, D.C. fell asleep while on duty as planes tried to land.

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