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LaHood Gives Wrong Reason for Firing Air Traffic Controller

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Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, right, is shown here at a news conference in Allentown, Pa., March 4.AP

The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday corrected Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who announced the dismissal of two air traffic controllers during a news interview Wednesday, but gave the wrong reason for one of their dismissals.

With the Federal Aviation Administration under harsh scrutiny following a series of mishaps, LaHood told PBS that two air traffic controllers -- one in Tennessee and one in Miami -- had been fired. So far so good. 

He then explained that the controller in Miami had been fired for guiding a 737 Southwest flight to look at a small plane that was out of radio contact to determine if something was amiss.

"Completely violates procedures," he said. "You can't guide a big plane over to look at a small plane. That's not the way that's done."

But the controller was fired not for being incompetent, but for sleeping on the job.

LaHood was correct that the Tennessee controller was fired for making a bed in the control tower, including pillows and blankets.

"We're not going to sit by and let that kind of behavior take place in control towers," he said.

The two firings were two of the five cases involving sleeping controllers that have gained notoreity this year. 

In a separate embarrassment, a controller was caught watching a DVD movie at his post. That controller was suspended. In total, the FAA has suspended eight controllers and supervisors since late March.

But the civilian air traffic controller who allowed first lady Michelle Obama's Boeing 737 to get too close to a 200-ton military cargo jet on Monday will not be punished. Military air traffic controllers at Andrews Air Force Base had Obama's plane abort a landing out of fear that the military jet wouldn't have enough time to clear the runway.

The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the incident. LaHood told PBS that the first lady was never in any danger, the U.S. has the safest aviation system in the world but it needs to perform better.

"So, I would say that flying is safe, but we need to do more, and we are doing more, and we will continue to do more until we make sure that controllers take personal responsibility for the most important safety jobs they have," he said. "We're doing a top-to-bottom review of procedures, workplace procedures and other things."

The FAA issued new air traffic rules for flights carrying Mrs. Obama or the vice president. An air traffic supervisor rather than a controller will handle those flights, the agency said. A supervisor already handles flights carrying the president.