Air Traffic Controller Becomes Incapacitated on the Job, Leaving Tower Unreachable

Nov 10, 2018

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is investigating an incident that occurred at Las Vegas-McCarran International Airport (LAS) in which an on-duty air traffic controller became incapacitated sometime during the first hour of the shift. The incapacitated person was the only air traffic controller in the cab of the airport’s tower at the time. The incident required aircraft to operate independently of the air traffic control tower instead of the control tower contacting aircraft directly.

The incident occurred a little after 11pm on Wednesday, November 7. The Nevada Independent is reporting that news of the incident came about when Nevada Representative Dina Titus, a member of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, was briefed on the incident. “The safety of travelers is of paramount concern and I will work with the FAA and McCarran as this investigation continues to unfold,” Titus said in a statement.

The FAA, citing privacy concerns, has not released many details to the public. What is known is that one of the two on-duty air traffic controllers at Las Vegas International Airport left the tower to go on a scheduled break. It was at this time that the other controller took over the other controller’s responsibilities and became the sole controller for the airport’s operations. The shift change took place close to midnight, a quiet time for the airport. There are few arrivals at that time of the evening and departures consist of a few eastbound red-eyes.

The Ramp at Terminal 3
The Ramp at Terminal 3 at Las Vegas Airport (Image via Las Vegas-McCarran Airport on Facebook)

Pilots operating flights following the controller shift change appear to have reported the controller becoming incapacitated. Just 9 minutes past 11pm, the controller’s performance was said to have “degraded.” At 11:24pm, exchanges between the tower and active flights show the controller had become incapacitated. Finally, at 11:47pm, the controller was completely unresponsive.

The tower at Las Vegas International Airport features multiple levels, or cabs. At 11:50pm, a second controller began their shift in the cab above the one in which the incapacitated controller was working. According to reports, pilots told the other controller about their unresponsive colleague. Workers addressed the incapacitated controller shortly thereafter.

During the 50 minutes in which departing flights were having to communicate with the incapacitated controller, some flights opted to hold their positions and not takeoff as the controller became unresponsive. Other flights were able to communicate with aircraft on the ground to safely taxi or takeoff. There were no injuries or accidents as a result of the unresponsive controller.

(Image via ©Ronda Churchill for McCarran International Airport)
(Image via ©Ronda Churchill for McCarran International Airport)

The air traffic controller who became incapacitated during their shift has since been put on extended leave. Initial reports, again citing privacy concerns, did not allude to what might have lead to the controller becoming unresponsive. Authorities did not elaborate on what caused the controller to become incapacitated.

The FAA issued the following statement following the incident at Las Vegas-McCarran International Airport: “The FAA is deeply concerned by the incident, is thoroughly investigating what occurred, and is taking immediate steps to modify its overnight shift staffing policies.”

The incident has also lead to a new policy to be implemented effectively Friday, November 9. While air traffic controllers receive multiple opportunities to take breaks or for rests, the new policy requires that at least two air traffic controllers remain in the cab of the tower at all times. This policy will vary depending on an airport’s schedule, flight volume and controller shift schedules.

This post has been updated to reflect the correct date of the incident, Wednesday, November 7.

H/T: The Nevada Independent

Featured image via Las Vegas-McCarran Airport on Facebook.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide including takeout and delivery in the U.S., and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $80 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® after you apply through any Authorized Enrollment Provider. If approved for Global Entry, at no additional charge, you will receive access to TSA PreCheck.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
17.24%-26.24% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.