"The FAA is thoroughly investigating Wednesday's early morning incidents at Ronald Reagan- Washington National Airport's control tower. While that is taking place, we have suspended the air traffic controller from all operational duties. I am determined to get to the bottom of this situation for the safety of the traveling public," Babbitt said.
"As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes. Fortunately, at no point was either plane out of radar contact and our back-up system kicked in to ensure the safe landing of both airplanes."
The situation began at 12:10 a.m. Wednesday when an American Airlines plane attempted to call the tower to get clearance to land and got no answer, said Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board. The plane had been in contact with a regional air traffic control facility, and a controller at that facility advised the pilot that he, too had been unable to contact anyone at the tower, according to a recording of air control traffic at the website liveatc.net.
"1012," the controller said, referring to the airline's flight number, "called a couple of times on landline and tried to call on the commercial line and there's no answer.
"The tower is apparently unmanned," the controller said.
Apparently asked why by a pilot, the controller later responded, "Well, I'm going to take a guess and say that the controller got locked out. I've heard of this happening before. Fortunately, it's not very often," he said.
Knudson said the plane landed without incident in a situation termed an "uncontrolled airport."
About 15 minutes later, a United Airlines flight also failed to reach the tower and landed without any problems, he said. After that, the controller in the tower was back in communication. Knudson said one controller was staffing the tower at the time this occurred.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday ordered the FAA to schedule two controllers on the overnight shift.
"It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space. I have also asked FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt to study staffing levels at other airports around the country," he said.
Knudson said it's not uncommon for planes to land at airports in such a situation. He said control towers at some fields around the country shut down for the night and planes still land. However, he could not comment on whether that practice was ever used at Reagan National.
The American Airlines flight, which was coming from Miami, had 91 passengers and six crew members aboard, airline spokesman Ed Martelle said. The United Airlines flight was arriving from Chicago with 63 passengers and five crew members, spokeswoman Megan McCarthy said.
American Airlines had no comment on the situation, saying it was leaving it to the FAA to handle. United Airlines noted that the NTSB is reviewing the incident and McCarthy said the airline is conducting its own review.