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Congress to investigate air traffic controller incident

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FAA  control tower at Reagan National Airport
The FAA control tower at Reagan National Airport is seen in Arlington, March 23, 2011.
AP Photo/Cliff Owen

A House committee announced Thursday that it will investigate a Tuesday night incident in which two airplanes landed at a Washington, D.C. airport without support from the airport control tower, reportedly because the lone air traffic controller fell asleep.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called the incident and other recent aviation performance failures a "serious concern." He also suggested the Obama administration was not responding to the latest incident appropriately.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood responded to the incident by directing the Federal Aviation Administration to put two air traffic controllers on the midnight shift at Reagan National Airport, where the incident occurred, and to launch a nationwide study into staffing issues at airports. The FAA said today it suspended the air traffic controller who reportedly fell asleep on the job, and the National Transportation Safety Board is also reviewing the incident.

In a statement, Mica suggested the decision to add another person on the midnight shift was wrongheaded.

"Unfortunately the Administration's call for increased staffing at Reagan National, when there are no flights during the early morning hours, is a typical bureaucratic response," he said.

He added that increasing staff when there are no flights violates the FAA's own management plan of staffing to air traffic.

"In difficult financial times for the nation, it is critical that we utilize our limited resources in the most responsible fashion without compromising safety," he said.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the top Democrat in the House committee, called the incident at Reagan Airport "troubling." He also supported LaHood's response.

"We must deal with the immediate safety and security concerns of this critical airspace, so I welcome Secretary LaHood's decision to increase personnel at the airport and examine staffing levels at airports around the country," he said.

Mica said the aviation subpanel in his committee, as well as the committee's investigative staff, would conduct a thorough review of the incident and other recent mishaps. No congressional hearings have yet been scheduled.