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

Nov 10, 2018

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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.

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