Thursday, 4:30 PM
Air traffic controller's 'bathroom break' delays three planes
By Mac Daniel, Globe Staff
Two Southwest Airlines flights were forced to circle Manchester-Boston Regional Airport last Friday when the lone air traffic controller had to go to the bathroom.
Federal Aviation Administration officials said another controller was in the tower at the time but was not certified to land the planes, forcing flights from Chicago and Orlando, Fla., to delay their landings by 18 minutes. In addition, a medical flight carrying lungs to a New Jersey airport had its takeoff delayed by what FAA log books referred to as a bathroom break.
Jim Peters, an FAA spokesman, said that the controller followed proper protocols by waiting until traffic was light. Earlier in his shift, the controller handled 60 aircraft operations and put off a break until he had two planes in the air, which were placed in a holding pattern.
"This controller did what he was trained to do, he followed procedure, and waited until a time that he could leave his position and that the airborne aircraft could be handled by another facility," said Peters, who added that an air traffic manager commended the controller for his performance.
The pilot of the flight carrying lungs to New Jersey was told that there would be a 10-minute wait before the plane could takeoff and did not object, according to Peters.
This is the third time in the past several months that local FAA management scheduled only one controller on a shift, according to officials with the air traffic controllers union. Peters said that staffing Friday night in the Manchester tower was at its normal level.
The issue raised serious questions about staffing at the airport's control tower, a contentious issue between the FAA and the controllers’ union. The two sides are at an impasse over a new contract that governs air traffic controllers.
At the same time, controllers are facing the potential of a huge exodus of workers, with an estimated 70 percent of tower managers and controllers eligible for retirement in the next year.