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FAA shakes up top air traffic controllers

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Aviation Administration on Friday replaced three high-level managers in the nation's air traffic control system following embarrassing incidents of controllers sleeping on the job and making potentially dangerous mistakes.

New managers were appointed to key positions that oversee the operation of airport towers and regional radar centers that handle planes flying at high altitudes as well as approaches and departures, the agency said in a statement. A new manager also was appointed to run a regional radar center near Cleveland. The previous managers are being reassigned.

The performance of mid-level managers is also being reassessed, the FAA said. And teams of experts are examining several of the agency's more complex facilities to ensure agency policies are being followed and professional standards upheld.

"This sends a powerful message, and it's the right message," said Gregory McGuirk, an associate professor of air traffic management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

But Missy Cummings, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said shuffling managers doesn't get at the root cause of many of the incidents. The limits of human physiology mean that night shift workers in all industries are going to fall asleep on the job from time to time, said Cummings, a human factors expert. Boredom is also a factor. The less activity there is to keep workers' minds engaged in the dead of night, the more likely they are to fall asleep, she said.

Earlier this month, a controller working an overnight shift at the Cleveland center was suspended for watching a DVD movie while he was supposed to be directing air traffic.

On Wednesday, FAA replaced the acting manager of a regional radar facility in Warrenton, Va., that handles approaches and departures for airports in Virginia and Maryland. The action came a week after a controller at the facility allowed a plane carrying first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, to fly too close to a military cargo jet.

Also Friday, FAA named a five-member review panel composed of internal, labor, industry and academic safety experts to evaluate the agency's training of new controllers.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing FAA's 15,700 controllers, declined to comment on the management changes.

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