‘Failures’ not mentioned during Babbitt’s ‘Communicating for Safety’ speech

At around midnight, very early on March 23rd 2011, a serious FAA failure occurred. A supervisor fell asleep for about a half hour, while working alone in the tower cab at Reagan National Airport, in the heart of Washington, DC. Two arrivals, AAL1012 and UAL628T,[1] radioed the Tower and got no answer. They then radioed the TRACON controller, asking what to do. The TRACON controller tried to contact the Tower on the shoutline,[2] but there was no answer. For all they knew, the one FAA Tower just a couple miles from both the Pentagon and the White House, had been overtaken by terrorists. The TRACON controller notified his supervisor. After some delay, and still not knowing what was really happening at the Tower, the pilots were allowed to land without a clearance. Fortunately, the Tower supervisor had only dozed off.

According to the NTSB investigative report, this incident was reported to the Regional Operations Center at 2:30AM. Nine hours after that, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi was introducing FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who was the featured speaker in Las Vegas, at a gathering of NATCA air traffic controllers. This was the final day of a three-day annual convention called Communicating for Safety 2011. [see NATCA media release]

Administrator Babbitt spoke for quite a while [video]. A transcript (it is lengthy, so I put it into a separate link – but it is well worth reading) shows 44 occurrences of the keywords ‘safety’, ‘culture’ and ‘collaborate’. Babbitt spoke of FAA’s ‘incredibly safe system’, safety teams, safety culture, safety partnership, safety systems, and the importance of collaboration for safety. At one point he said:

“You know, I think if you follow a lot of the remarks I make, I talk about fundamentally two things in the system: professionalism, and safety. And if you stop and think about it, you really can’t have just one of those. You really can’t. It’s impossible to have an unprofessional system that’s safe. And, I think it is impossible to have a safe system where you have people being unprofessional. And so this is something that together we are working on and I think we are making huge progress.”

Now, when the Reagan National supervisor was waking up from his nap, it was 9:30PM in Las Vegas. Administrator Babbitt was still at, or had just departed from, a social mixer with the many NATCA members attending Communicating for Safety 2011 (he talks about this in his speech). It seems inconceivable that, eleven hours later, while being introduced for his morning speech, Administrator Babbitt had not yet been briefed about the Reagan doze-off incident. But suppose he knew nothing; what does that say about the quality of communications within FAA?

Two weeks later the world learned of yet another sleeping incident. In this case, Administrator Babbitt answered a question from a congressman by revealing the first details of the Knoxville sleeping controller incident. FOIA records show that the lone controller working in the Knoxville TRACON on February 19, 2011 made a bed on the floor using couch cushions, then slept from 12:24AM until 4:55AM.[3] Worse, the controller alone in the Knoxville Tower cab had to ‘wing it’ to provide radar services to the flights that early morning; he was not certified to work radar.

Back to Communicating for Safety 2011. It is 8:30AM in a large convention hall with controllers from all over the U.S., and the heads of both the FAA and NATCA. Mr. Rinaldi and Administrator Babbitt are gushing about professionalism and safety, as if they know nothing about the failures at Knoxville and at Reagan National. Not a word was shared about the incredible safety and security breach that had happened eleven hours earlier. Not a word, while Communicating for Safety. Go figure.

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Related Records:

3/23/11 press release by DoT Secretary Ray LaHood 

[1] AAL is American, UAL is United
[2] when a controller pushes a shoutline button, she can speak directly into the ear of another controller, at a distant facility or even at the adjacent sector. It gets their attention.
[3] A related article will be posted soon on the fascinating content in this FOIA response. There is much more to the Knoxville story than made the mainstream press.

2 thoughts on “‘Failures’ not mentioned during Babbitt’s ‘Communicating for Safety’ speech

  1. Those who work for the FAA and who pay attention soon learn that there is much more concern about the appearance of safety than about actual safety. This is frequently seen in the statements of FAA press people that “safety was never compromised.” This statement follows almost every safety-related incident assuming there’s no smoke and fire after the fact.

    • When I worked Oceanic traffic at Oakland Center, we had this tall cardboard box for recycling flight progress strips. The side was neatly graffitied with that mantra: “safety was never compromised”.

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