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Controller Requests 737 Crew Intercept Cirrus, Suspensions Result

Cirrus Formation

March 31, 2011 — An air traffic control supervisor and the flight crew of a Southwest Airlines 737 were suspended following an incident over Florida on March 27. The controller, who works at Central Florida TRACON, had lost radio contact with a Cirrus SR22 for over an hour. He asked the nearby Southwest crew flying at 12,000 feet if they would be willing to intercept the flight and check on the Cirrus, which was flying at 11,000 feet. The Southwest crew agreed and was vectored toward the aircraft, which was on course for Kissimmee, Florida, and upon intercept reported seeing two people inside.

After reporting seeing the occupants the Southwest flight turned away and was vectored onto the arrival for Orlando International Airport. Thirty seconds later the Cirrus contacted Jacksonville Center and was directed to a new frequency according to a statement released by the FAA.  

The agency reported that a loss of traffic separation had occurred, which led to the suspension. The Southwest crew was also suspended until an investigation is complete. “By placing this passenger aircraft in close proximity to another plane, the air traffic controller compromised the safety of everyone involved. This incident was totally inappropriate,” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said.  “We are reviewing the air traffic procedures used here and making sure everyone understands the protocols for contacting unresponsive aircraft.”

Administrator Babbitt has been busy addressing air traffic control issues recently following an incident last week in which a controller fell asleep in the control tower at Reagan-Washington National Airport. Since then new rules were announced requiring radar controllers to contact towers, where a single controller is working overnight, to confirm they are ready for a flight before handing it off. The new procedures are the first step in a broader review of air traffic control staffing by the FAA.

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