Controller's Lapse at RDU Led FAA to Ban Solo Work

No one was hurt by the mistake last summer of an overworked air traffic controller at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, but the incident prompted a ban on solo work shifts in control towers at RDU and similar airports.

The Federal Aviation Administration said this week that it had violated its RDU-inspired ban when it assigned a controller to work alone Sunday in Lexington, Ky., where the crash of a Comair jet killed 49 people.

Thunderstorms were pounding Raleigh-Durham a few minutes after midnight on Aug. 17, 2005, and the pilot of an inbound passenger jet asked for permission to slip beneath the turbulence. A controller working alone in the tower approved the pilot's request to fly at 7,000 feet, instead of the usual 8,000 feet, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said Wednesday.

Another commercial jet took off, headed northeast toward the approaching aircraft. The controller mistakenly directed the outbound pilot to fly at 7,000 feet.

"They should not have been at the same altitude," Bergen said. "But the controller also was working other aircraft. There were other flights in the airspace and other flights on the ground at that time."

Air safety rules require controllers to separate aircraft by at least 1,000 feet when they are less than 3 miles apart, Bergen said. The two jets passed within 1.6 miles of each other that night about 12 miles north of RDU.

After investigating the RDU controller's "loss of separation" error, in November the FAA called a halt to the practice at some airports of putting a single controller on duty during relatively quiet overnight shifts.

"The policy was reinforced to have two controllers working the midnight shift -- one to handle ground operations and the other to provide radar service for incoming flights," Bergen said. She did not identify the controller or the airlines involved.

Raleigh-Durham airport officials met with local FAA representatives Wednesday to discuss the August 2005 incident. Jill Denning, an airport spokeswoman, said the FAA had not previously told RDU officials about the controller's mistake or about the agency's decision to end solo work shifts.

John I. Brown Jr., an FAA controller who serves as local representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at RDU, said his group had previously pushed to have at least two controllers on duty. He praised the FAA for making the change.

"It's a safety issue," Brown said. "I watch you, you watch me, and distribute the workload."

The Comair jet crashed after takeoff early Sunday. The pilot used the wrong runway, which was not long enough to handle his regional passenger jet. Investigators said the lone air traffic controller was busy with other chores and did not notice the pilot's mistake.

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