There are certain high-risk jobs that require those tending them to be on the ball and at peak performance at all times.

The 911 dispatcher who handles calls to dispatch emergency responders like police and firefighters comes to mind. And then there are those who police and oversee those plants and strategic locations important to our national interest, i.e. power plants and grids, water plants, nuclear facilities, and our military defense and first response teams.

Oh, and we can't forget the air traffic controllers who keep our planes flying safely. In some jobs you might be able to get away with a cat-nap or afternoon siesta break for a few minutes. An air traffic controller isn't one of them.

But that's what happened early Wednesday when the lone controller at Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. nodded off during his shift. Repeated calls to the tower from the pilots of two incoming flights – one with 97 passengers and the other with 68 – were met with silence, forcing the planes to land without the tower's assistance.

Fortunately, the pilots weren't flying completely alone. Controllers at the Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control Center 40 miles away in suburban Va. helped guide them down safely.

How could this occur?

The controller, now suspended from his job, is a veteran with 20 years experience, including 17 at the Reagan airport. A preliminary investigation revealed he was fatigued from working four consecutive overnight shifts (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.).

In those airports which have single controllers with no one to back them up, the fatigue factor needs a quick resolution from the National Transportation Safety Board.

One hundred and sixty five passengers on two flights were able to land safely on this occasion but having a controller asleep at the switch is not something that should require a lengthy congressional hearing.

The priority level can't be higher when people's lives are put at risk.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com