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Air traffic controller suspended for watching movie on duty

Air traffic controller suspended for watching movie on duty

Employee's microphone transmits Samuel L Jackson film to all planes in the area

An air traffic controller has been suspended for watching a movie when he was supposed to be monitoring aircraft, deepening the Federal Aviation Administration's embarrassment following at least five cases of controllers sleeping on the job.

In the latest incident, the controller was watching a movie on a DVD player early Sunday morning while on duty at a regional radar centre in Oberlin, Ohio (near Cleveland) that handles high-altitude air traffic, the FAA said in a statement Monday.

The controller's microphone was active and transmitting the audio of 2007 crime thriller Cleaner, starring Samuel L Jackson, for more than three minutes to all the planes in the airspace that the controller was supposed to be monitoring, the agency said.

The controller's microphone was stuck in the 'transmit' position, preventing him from hearing incoming radio calls or issuing instructions to planes during the incident

The controller was alerted to the mishap when he was contacted by a military pilot.

Besides the controller, the FAA also has suspended a manager at the Oberlin centre.

This happened hot on the heels of yesterday's announcement that US First Lady Michelle Obama's plane from New York to Washington came dangerously close to a collision, due to an air traffic controller's mistake.

Air traffic controllers at Andrews Air Force base ordered her plane to make a series of manoeuvres to avoid contact with a C-17 military plane and cancelled its scheduled landing, forcing it to circle the airport before finally landing safely.

In all, the FAA has suspended nine controllers and supervisors in the last month alone.

In five of the cases, controllers allegedly fell asleep. In another case, the FAA is investigating why two controllers in Lubbock, Texas, were unresponsive to radio calls.

Nearly all the incidents occurred during overnight shifts when, fortunately, air traffic is light.

The incidents have shaken FAA officials, made air traffic controllers the butt of late-night comedians on US television and raised public jitters about the safety of air travel.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said early Monday, before the agency had disclosed the incident near Cleveland, that he was "infuriated" that air traffic controllers have been caught snoozing on the job.

"None of us in this business can ... tolerate any of this," Babbitt said. "It absolutely has to stop."

Babbitt was at a regional radar centre near Atlanta with Paul Rinaldi, President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents controllers. The pair met with about 50 controllers and other FAA employees as they kicked off a nationwide tour of air traffic facilities aimed at sending a message as much to the public as to controllers that unprofessional behaviour won't be tolerated.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood underscored the same message in a series of television interviews over the past several days. Even President Barack Obama joined the chorus, telling ABC News last week, "We've got it under control."

But every time administration officials say they've moved decisively to contain the problem, another controller steps over the line.

The day before the Cleveland incident a controller fell asleep while working an overnight shift at a busy regional radar facility in Miami, Florida, that handles high-altitude traffic over parts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean.

And just two months ago a whistleblower alerted authorities that air controllers were spending five hours of each eight hour shift texting and watching movies on their laptops ... which nearly led to a collision between a passenger and military plane over the Atlantic.

The incidents have raised concerns about work schedules that don't allow controllers realistic opportunities for sleep.

The FAA forbids controllers from sleeping on the job, even during the 20-minute to 30-minute breaks they receive every few hours. Babbitt stood by that position Monday.

Babbitt said at the meeting that the scandal caused by sleeping controllers has harmed the agency's credibility. He said passengers should never have to worry about whether a flight crew is rested, a plane is properly maintained or air traffic controllers are on the job.

"That should never be a thought for anybody getting in an aeroplane in this country," he said. "And it hasn't been a thought. But unfortunately, we have raised that concern."

How long before an air traffic controller slips up in Oz? Are you worried for your safety when you fly?

Related: How to survive a plane crash

User comments
What's the issue here? Is it that he was watching a movie early Sunday morning (maybe 4am, with just one acft on freq) or that he inadvertently had an open mike? Watching a movie, reading a book, reading operational documentation, playing solitaire, etc. Have to do something to keep alert on the graveyard shift if there is stuff all traffic.
That is just too scary for words. Puts one off flying.
A stupid question, wrapping a completely unrelated workplace in with activities happening halfway across the world. If you have ever been to either of the Air Traffic Control Centres in Australia you would know that such devices are not allowed in the control room. They are disciplined, security control environments with recreation rooms for watching movies whilst on break away from the control consoles. Even asking this question is an insult to the professional people that do this job in Australia.

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