Two airliners landed at Washington Reagan National early Tuesday morning after they couldn’t get any response from the airport tower. Allegedly, the controller was asleep on the job.

But the real story goes a lot deeper. What the nation witnessed was yet another warning that the management of nation’s entire air traffic control (ATC) system is functionally asleep at the switch.

A controller snoring on the break-room couch is like a sentry leaving his post: bad things can happen. Of course, the FAA will issue statements that passengers on those flights were never endangered. And, that’s technically true. Those pilots would not have proceeded to land if there was any danger. But that does not change the fact that the ATC system at Reagan National was, for all intents and purposes, AWOL.

This should not be surprising, because professional accountability at the FAA has been AWOL for years. The response to this event from Ray LaHood, the Secretary of Transportation is a prime example. His solution: make sure there are two controllers on duty at all times. That’s great. Now they can spell each other off anytime one or the other wants to take a cat nap. Because one guy couldn’t do his job right, LaHood wants to sock the taxpayer with two employees where only one is needed. Great management style.

The concept of demanding why this happened, or dealing with the FAA management system that allowed it to take place, is one LaHood apparently does not understand. And that brings us to the real issue which this illuminates: our ATC system is a failing mess. Controllers may fall asleep, but they’re doing it on top of equipment that’s out of date with no real fix in sight, and under management direction that often is clueless.

If you look beyond the FAA’s press releases, and check out what’s really happened over the past 20 years, an employee dozing off on duty is just the a symptom of a systemic lack of direction at the FAA. You’ll find that tolerance of sloppy work, whether it’s a billion-dollar cost overrun, or a controller leaving his post, is standard operating procedure.

For example, the FAA will tell us that the ATC system has a full fix in the works. It’s called "NextGen," and truth be known, it’s largely a combination of repackaged programs that are years late already, and may be obsolete by the time that they get installed. 

Back in 1993, the FAA claimed that a system fix was going to be in place by 2001. Oops, that program was cancelled, and now the date is something like 2017 or later. In fairness, demanding results from the management of the FAA has never been part of the Washington program. Congress, and, indeed, the airline industry itself, just take whatever excuses the FAA puts out. And that includes LaHood’s excuse that putting a second controller on the graveyard shift at DCA will fix things in a jiffy.

The point is this: don’t believe for a minute that this incident at Reagan is just a one-off at the FAA. Or that it will lead to changes. It is simply another warning that, while air travel is safe, we’re on the outer margins of safety because bureaucrats like Mr. LaHood are focused on addressing the problem of sleeping controllers, instead of tearing into the fundamental system that lets it happen.

Michael Boyd is an aviation expert and president of Boyd Group International.