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Controllers caught napping are axed

The US Federal Aviation Administration has taken new steps to fix problems in the nation's air traffic control system by firing two controllers for sleeping on the job and ordering a higher level of supervision over aircraft carrying the first lady or vice president.

The new air traffic rules and the firings come as the FAA struggles to reassure the public that air travel is safe.

The agency has been shaken by a series of embarrassing incidents, including five cases of controllers falling asleep on the job, a controller caught watching a DVD movie at his post and an aborted landing of a plane carrying Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill.

The fired controllers were assigned to radar facilities in Miami and Knoxville, Tennessee. They had been found sleeping during overnight shifts, according to the FAA, which had disclosed the incidents previously.

Under the new air traffic rules, flights carrying Mrs Obama or the vice president will be handled by an air traffic supervisor rather than a controller, the agency said.

The new rules apply to approaches and departures handled by a regional air traffic facility in Warrenton, Virginia, and take-offs and landings at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where the presidential fleet is based. Flights with the president on board are already required to be handled by a supervisor

Also, the National Transportation Safety Board said it has opened an investigation into the aborted landing of Mrs Obama's plane.

The FAA moved swiftly in the case of the Miami controller, whom the agency said was found sleeping at about 5am on Saturday at a regional radar facility that handles high-altitude air traffic for portions of Florida, the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. A preliminary review of air traffic tapes indicated he did not miss any calls from aircraft and there was no impact on flight operations.

The Knoxville incident occurred on February 19 at a radar facility at the McGhee Tyson Airport. Officials said the controller made himself a makeshift bed and deliberately slept for about five hours despite attempts by a co-worker to wake him.

The aborted landing involving Mrs Obama's plane occurred on Monday at Andrews Air Force Base just outside Washington.

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