Two airliners had to circle for 18 minutes and a plane ferrying human lungs for transplant was briefly delayed Friday while an airport's lone air traffic controller took a bathroom break, the controller's union said.
The union on Tuesday cited the Friday incident at the Manchester, New Hampshire, airport as evidence that air traffic control facilities are understaffed.
"There should never be one person in the tower, because it's not safe," said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "It's just added proof that the system is stretched to its limits, and these are the type of things that are happening."
Federal Aviation Administration officials responded that staffing is sufficient, that the bathroom break was handled in accordance with policy, and that travelers were not endangered or unduly inconvenienced.
While drawing vastly different conclusions about the significance of the event, the FAA and the union gave details that generally matched.
Both said the controller, whom neither named, had been on duty at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport about two hours and 40 minutes Friday when he had to take a bathroom break.
Because the only other employee in the tower was not certified to handle takeoffs and landings, the controller notified FAA's Boston consolidated terminal radar approach control, or TRACON, that he was taking the unscheduled break.
FAA spokesman Jim Peters said the controller, who had handled 60 aircraft during the first three hours of his shift, acted responsibly by waiting until a slow period before taking his bathroom break. Boston TRACON assumed responsibility for the airspace and placed two aircraft in a holding pattern until the controller returned.
Peters said the break lasted 12 minutes, but said a few additional minutes may have lapsed as the planes were realigned to land.
"It's the FAA's position that the staffing that was present at Manchester was sufficient to safely handle arrivals and departures at that time of the evening," Peters said. "He was only gone for 12 minutes, so while there may have been a slight delay in the aircraft landing, certainly the controller did what he had to do."
Union spokesman Church said Southwest Flights 1187 and 2379 were delayed 18 minutes. He provided CNN with an FAA "traffic management log" indicating an 18-minute lapse during a "bathroom break."
Passengers on the aircraft were probably not informed of the reason for the delay, Church said, adding, "They'd probably be angry."
During the controller's break, a Lifeguard flight pilot radioed the tower and spoke to a trainee, who was not certified to conduct controller operations. The trainee told the pilot he would have to wait 10 minutes for the controller to return.
The pilot replied that he had "lungs on board," Church said.
Peters acknowledged that the Lifeguard flight was told it had to wait 10 minutes, but said there was no indication from the pilot that the delay would cause problems.
The FAA and the controllers' union have skirmished repeatedly in recent months about staffing levels at airports.
The union says controllers are often forced to work overtime, contributing to fatigue, which results in safety lapses. But the FAA says most overtime is voluntary and said instances of involuntary overtime are rare.
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