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LaHood: 2 Controllers Fired, but All Must Take ‘Personal Responsibility’

April 20, 2011 at 5:49 PM EDT
Federal officials moved to dispel new air-travel safety concerns after a military plane carrying first lady Michelle Obama breached the safety zone of another plane landing ahead of it. Gwen Ifill talks to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about the latest in a series of incidents involving air-traffic controllers.

GWEN IFILL: Federal officials set out today to dispel new concerns about the safety of air travel, following a highly publicized episode with the first lady’s plane.

The latest incident involving air-traffic controllers occurred Monday. That’s when first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife, flew from New York to Washington after appearing on “The View.”

As their Boeing 737 military jet, a smaller version of Air Force One, approached Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, it was allowed to get within three miles of a C-17 military cargo plane landing ahead of it. A five-mile distance is required to avoid turbulence caused by the wake of the giant cargo jets.

STEVE GANYARD, consultant: If an airplane is — is too close behind another airplane, the small tornadoes that come off an airplane in front can actually upset the airplane flying behind and cause the airplane flying behind to lose control.

GWEN IFILL: In this case, the Virginia-based civilian controller’s orders were overruled by military controllers at Andrews. The first lady’s plane was directed to make several turns, circle, and make a second approach.

Officials said neither plane was ever in serious danger, but the attention-getting mishap is the latest in a series of embarrassments for the Federal Aviation Administration. Just within the past month, the agency has suspended nine air traffic controllers and supervisors, including some who fell asleep during late-night flights at Washington Reagan National and elsewhere, and one outside Cleveland who was watching movies on the job.

RANDY BABBITT, Federal Aviation Administration: None of us in this business can — can tolerate any of this. It absolutely has to stop.

I was absolutely infuriated when I heard the first one or two. But, as we began our review, it became even more frustrating and it was more disappointing to me to see what — what has happened here.

GWEN IFILL: Over the weekend, the FAA changed their rules to allow controllers nine, instead of eight hours off between shifts.

The stories of fatigued and distracted controllers have touched a nerve with the flying public. And the National Transportation Safety Board has now launched its own investigation into the close calls.

For more about these aviation troubles, we turn to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. His job includes oversight of the FAA. And he joins me now.

Welcome, Mr. Secretary.


GWEN IFILL: Let’s clear up first what did and what didn’t happen with the first lady’s plane.

RAY LAHOOD: Well, it was too close to the cargo plane, and that was disclosed. And the controller that was in charge made sure that her plane made the corrective moves that were necessary in order to alleviate any kind of that backup wind that the consultant was talking about.

I want to assure everyone that Mrs. Obama was never in any danger.

GWEN IFILL: Do other members of the flying public have reason to worry when they see tale after tale after tale about these kinds of mishaps along the way, to put it, I guess, the most charitable way possible?

RAY LAHOOD: Gwen, what I would say to the flying public is that we have the safest aviation system here in the United States anywhere in the world, but we have to do better.

We are doing better. We’re conducting — conducting investigations. And I’m prepared to announce tonight that we have fired two controllers after completing two investigations. We’re also changing procedures have having to do with the vice president and first lady’s plane when they’re flying in and out of Washington airspace.

So, I would say that flying is safe, but we need to do more, and we are doing more, and we will continue to do more until we make sure that controllers take personal responsibility for the most important safety jobs they have. We’re doing a top-to-bottom review of procedures, workplace procedures and other things.

You have already announced in this — tonight some of the other things that we’re doing. And I’m — I’m telling the flying public, we take it seriously. And that’s the reason I’m announcing that two controllers have been fired.

GWEN IFILL: That’s two of the nine who we mentioned in that piece.

RAY LAHOOD: That’s correct.

GWEN IFILL: Do we know where they were, which — which…

RAY LAHOOD: Miami, Fla., where the controller had guided a 737 Southwest flight to take a look at a small plane that was out of radio contact to see if something was going on. Completely violates procedures. You can’t guide a big plane over to look at a small plane. That’s not the way that’s done.

Also, in Tennessee, where a controller actually made a bed in the control tower, brought a pillow, brought blankets. He’s been fired. We’re not — we’re not going to sit by and let that kind of behavior take place in control towers.

GWEN IFILL: How widespread problem is fatigue? That seems to have been a factor in so many of these cases.

RAY LAHOOD: Well, we have extended rest time. We’ve listened to what controllers have told us. And we have expanded rest time from eight hours to nine hours.

Our administrator is out around the country talking to controllers, talking about workplace, talking about rest times. If we need to do more, if we need to extend it, we will do it. We’re not going to just sit by and continue to do things the way they have been done in the past. If changes need to be made, we’ll make them.

GWEN IFILL: Are we hearing about these incidents now because they’re happening more or because they’re being reported more often?

RAY LAHOOD: Well, Gwen, I have been in this job two-and-a-half years, and the first time I have heard about a sleeping controller is when it happened at Washington National Airport. And we have had a spike in these reports. And…

GWEN IFILL: It’s the first time you have heard about it, but how do we know it hasn’t happened?

RAY LAHOOD: Because I hadn’t heard about it. And I think, if it had happened, we probably would have heard about it.

This is a very serious safety violation when these controllers are sleeping in control towers. And I think we would have heard about it.

GWEN IFILL: More broadly, are you concerned at all? We are now in 2011. It was in the early 1980s that all of the air-traffic controllers were fired and replaced with brand-new folks who now are reaching retirement age.

Are you worried that you’re about to lose the experience that you do have?

RAY LAHOOD: Well, what I — what we’re trying to evaluate is to make sure the training program that these new controllers have been through is the proper training. Do we need to do more? That’s the top-to-bottom review.

And we’re also looking at workplace situations, like the number of hours they’re working, like the rest time, which we have expanded from eight to nine hours. We’re looking at everything. We will — we will continue to work 24/7 to make sure we get it right. And we’re working with controllers to help us figure this out.

GWEN IFILL: A lot of people who travel a lot — or even a little — are far more concerned about things which affect them every single time they travel, like whether they’re paying the right amount for their fees, bag fees, whether they’re stuck on a tarmac, whether they’re getting their money back when their planes are canceled or they’re bumped off a flight.

Today, you announced some new rules. Could you explain them to us, how that will change it?

RAY LAHOOD: Absolutely.

If you pay $25, $30, $40 for a bag and it doesn’t make it to the destination, you get your money back. That’s not the case today. When you go on your website at home to buy a ticket, we want to make sure all the costs are disclosed: taxes, pillow fee, blanket fee, food fees. They’re all there.

GWEN IFILL: … be a long list there on the website.

RAY LAHOOD: There will be a long list, because airlines are charging more for all of these so-called things that we have taken for granted. So, that’s number two.

Number three, if you’re on an international flight and are on the tarmac for four hours, you go back to the terminal. We implemented that with domestic flights. It has worked very well. We have decreased dramatically tarmac delays as a result of that.

If you go to the ticket counter with your ticket, and the — whoever is there at the airline says, oh, by the way, we overbooked this flight, and you’ve been bumped, they have — the airlines has to repay you the amount of money that you paid for the ticket, plus an additional fee on top of that.

Those four things, we think, go a long way to say to the flying public, we’ve felt your pain. All of us fly, and we know that this is a real problem for the flying public.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about one of those things…


GWEN IFILL: … which is the tarmac delays.


GWEN IFILL: Won’t that increase cancellations of flights, if after four hours, rather than sitting there four-and-a-half-hours, you just have to take the plane — they just decide to take the plane back to the gate?

RAY LAHOOD: The enforcement we announced today was for international flights, which kind of the tip of the iceberg for us was last December, when all these flights were delayed.

We implemented a domestic tarmac delay, three hours, and there have been very little delays as a result of it. Airlines said there would be. We didn’t agree with that, and there haven’t been. So, the airlines have fit their schedules. And people have become accustomed to this idea that we’re not going to let people sit on a tarmac for three hours.

GWEN IFILL: And this all goes into effect in August.

RAY LAHOOD: That’s correct.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary Ray LaHood, thank you so much for joining us.

RAY LAHOOD: Thank you, Gwen.