KMGH Denver: A Colorado air traffic controller is under federal investigation, suspected of being intoxicated while controlling live air traffic, the CALL7 Investigators have confirmed. On July 5, Federal Aviation Administration officials tested a veteran air traffic controller for alcohol, sources told CALL7 Investigator John Ferrugia. It was a random test.
On Tuesday, Ferrugia spoke to the controller in question, by phone. Ferrugia said the controller was clearly concerned and further confirmed that he is under investigation by the FAA. The controller would not comment further about the circumstances, citing the ongoing investigation.
Sources told Ferrugia, the controller was tested six and a half hours into his eight-hour shift and his blood alcohol content was twice the legal limit; however, it is not known which "limit" as the accepted level for air traffic controllers is much lower than for operating a motor vehicle, which is 0.08%.
Air traffic controllers can be removed from work with any test above .02% and according to federal regulations, "All employees who are in alcohol TDPs (Testing Designated Positions) are prohibited from reporting for duty or remaining on duty while having an alcohol concentration of 0.04 or greater on a confirmation test or off-duty concentrations that result in an arrest."
A "Testing Designated Position" is described as "a position with critical safety or security-sensitive responsibilities." The veteran controller was intoxicated while talking to pilots in the air, sources said.
He was immediately relieved of his duty.
"The controller in question is not working air traffic. We are investigating the incident," said Mike Fergus, a spokesman for the FAA. The agency could not confirm the controller's blood alcohol concentration.
The CALL7 Investigators have learned the controller under investigation was, in the past, a representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing air traffic controllers. He has worked as an air traffic controller for more than 25 years, sources said.
It is not known if he was drinking while at work or had shown up to work intoxicated.
The veteran controller works at the Denver Air Route Traffic Control Center in Longmont, also known as Denver Center. According to the FAA, Denver Center controls 285,000 square miles of airspace over portions of nine states. It directs airplane travel between airports but not in the immediate vicinity of airports, so it does not land planes at Denver International Airport.
A family member confirms the air traffic controller has entered alcohol rehabilitation and has been told by the FAA that he can be reinstated if he completes all the required rehabilitation, per federal guidelines. It is unclear if he would ever control live air traffic again. Since no aircraft incidents were involved, the controller has not been charged with a federal crime.
Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, called the incident "deeply troubling."
"We do not condone what is now being investigated to have taken place at Denver Center," Rinaldi said in a statement. "We are proud of our safety record both there and at every facility and will continue to work to keep our airspace system the world's safest."
The FAA recently announced new steps to help prevent controllers from falling asleep on the job. Since April, the FAA has disclosed seven instances of controllers sleeping while on duty. The new policy allows controllers to use sick or annual leave time if they are too tired to work. They will also be allowed to listen to the radio and read to help stay alert during overnight shifts when traffic is light.
The new policy doesn't allow controllers to nap while on break or to schedule naps during overnight shifts, even though sleep scientists say that's the most effective way to refresh tired workers.
Currently, controllers caught napping, even when on break, can be fired.