Well, the professional bleaters are rustling up frantic people to quake before their cameras. I just saw a "passenger" from an airline describing how his life could be endangered by the lack of an aircraft control tower operator. Then the beautiful blonde news-creature pontificated on the two instances of sleeping tower controllers on the midnight shift.
Tennessee Sleeper Naps
Now, let's be clear about the Reagan National Incident and this second episode. These are both night shifts and there is virtually NO traffic. At Reagan the solo controller napped for 24 minutes and two flights landed uneventfully. At McGhee-Tyson, there was a second controller handling the load which consisted of seven flights in FIVE HOURS. That's a plane landing every forty-five minutes. I wonder if the guy who was awake needed tranquilizers after that hectic shift.
"The pilot needs an awake tower controller to help him land the aircraft...." says news blondie. Sorry, no! The pilot can take-off, land, flying from point A to point B and do a number of other tasks including eat lunch and proposition the junior flight attendant with the perky butt all without any sort of air traffic controller's help.
I suppose things have changed since I was in the business. They are undoubtedly more automated not less. All airline flights are on instrument flight plans. The takeoff talking to a departure controller, not a tower operator. They get handed off to a series of enroute center controllers. They descend and fly to the runway talking to an approach controller. Along the way they've got windows to look out of, radars searching the sky in front of them and even gadgets that tell them of possible collisions to avoid at their altitude.
The approach controller, not located in the tower, gives clearance and deconfliction from other KNOWN INSTRUMENT FLIGHT PLAN flights. The approach controller monitors the approach and landing. Usually the last words you hear from him come after you have touched down on the runway and typically are "Contact Ground when clear..." Unless you are VFR (Visual Flight Rules) you seldom talk to the tower controller.
Thinks may have changed since I was doing it, but I can't imagine they've moved too far from that model. I might be wrong though.
Air traffic controllers like to tell you that they tell pilots where to go. We let them think that, but we know that we can go pretty much wherever we need to without their help.