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Movie-watching the latest distraction in air traffic control saga

By Jim Barnett, CNN Senior Producer
  • A controller in Ohio was watching "Cleaner," a Samuel L. Jackson thriller, early Sunday
  • Audio went out on a radio frequency, was reported to air traffic control by military pilot
  • Supervisor was aware of the situation and did nothing, transportation secretary says
  • Controller and front-line manager are suspended pending investigation

Washington (CNN) -- An air traffic controller in Ohio is the latest to get caught not doing his job, but this one wasn't sleeping in front of a radar position. He was watching a movie.

It happened early Sunday morning. For more than three minutes, the audio from the Samuel L. Jackson thriller "Cleaner" was transmitted over a radio frequency by an air traffic controller at the Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center in Oberlin, Ohio.

"The problem was brought to air traffic control's attention by the pilot of a military aircraft using an alternate frequency," according to a statement from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Officials say the controller was watching the movie on a portable electronic device while he was working.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said the controller's supervisor was aware that the employee was watching a movie and didn't stop him. LaHood said it was "ridiculous... outrageous... and intolerable."

The controller and the front-line manager have been suspended from operational duties pending an investigation. FAA policy prohibits the use of portable DVD players and other devices from being used in radar rooms.

This latest incident took place as the head of the FAA and the leader of the controllers' union started a cross country tour to spread the gospel of professionalism to the rank and file. In the meantime, stories of derelict controllers keep piling up.

There have now been incidents in Washington; Knoxville, Tennessee; Reno, Nevada; Seattle; Lubbock, Texas; and Miami in just the past couple of months.

Scheduling rules have been adjusted and staffing beefed up to mitigate fatigue among controllers.

One passenger at Reagan National Airport in Washington told CNN, "They're there to control the air traffic and keep us all from running into one another, and it sounds to me like they are relaxing and having recreation."

The Cleveland center used to be the busiest regional control center in the United States, but was ranked sixth according to the most recent FAA statistics from 2010.

CNN Jeanne Meserve, Mike Ahlers and Carol Cratty contributed to this report