Air traffic boss quits as reports fly in of controllers nodding off

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The head of air traffic operations for the United States resigned last night after a string of attention-grabbing news reports about controllers falling asleep in airport towers leaving pilots to land their planes with no guidance from the ground beyond the visual track of runway lights.

Hank Krakowski, a former airline pilot himself who had taken over the Air Traffic Organisation four years ago, quit after the number of controllers found to have nodded off on late shifts in recent weeks rose to five.

The problem of dozing controllers attracted public attention a few weeks ago when it emerged that two passenger jets had landed late at night at National Airport in Washington with no help from the tower. Since then other incidents of radio-silence from towers have been uncovered in airports around the country including in Reno, Nevada and Seattle. In one case a controller was found bundled in a blanket.

"This conduct must stop immediately. I am committed to maintaining the highest level of public confidence and that begins with strong leadership," Randy Babbit, the head of the Federal Aviation Agency, said after accepting Mr Krakowski's resignation. "We have seen examples of unprofessional conduct on the part of a few individuals that have rightly caused the travelling public to question our ability to ensure their safety."

In all the incidents the towers were being manned by a single flight controller left to look after just a handful of arriving and departing flights in the graveyard shift. The FAA said it would be doubling-up staffing levels at 27 airports to make it less likely anyone will nod off. The neglect at the Washington tower was considered particularly egregious because the airport is barely one mile from the White House.

Other incidents that have undermined public confidence included a collision at JFK Airport this week when an Air France jumbo jet's wings clipped the tail of a Delta commuter jet while they were both taxiing on the tarmac. The contact was severe enough to send the Delta jet spinning nose-about-tail.