A day after the National Transportation Safety Board decided not to list air traffic control tower staffing as a factor in the crash of Comair Flight 5191, controllers in Lexington raised new concerns about staff levels in the Blue Grass Airport tower.
Officials with the local air traffic controllers union said the Federal Aviation Administration has made recent changes in staffing policy that now leave the tower's daytime -- and busiest -- shift understaffed. The Comair crash set off a debate about the tower's overnight shift, which was staffed with one controller instead of the required two at the time of the crash.
During the months after the crash, overtime spending in the Lexington tower jumped dramatically in order to make sure two controllers worked the overnight shift, union officials said.
But, after media reports in late May detailed the rise in overtime, the FAA decided to cut back overtime and staff the overnight shift by taking a controller from the day shift, said Randy Harris, president of the Lexington chapter of the National Air Traffic Controller's Association.
"Basically we are working shorter-handed now," Harris said.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the Blue Grass tower is maintaining a level of five, and sometimes six, controllers during the day shift. Some of those day-shift controllers might not be fully trained, but they are allowed to work the positions in the tower for which they are trained, Brown said.
But Harris said those controllers aren't very useful "because they can't work by themselves, so you're still short a controller."
"The way we train people is to have them work with somebody who is certified," Brown said.
During yesterday's day shift, there were six people on duty, but only three were fully certified, Harris said.
Four years ago, the tower operated with a minimum of six fully trained controllers on the day shift, but that staffing level could not be maintained, Harris said.
Controller staffing has been one of the most controversial aspects of the Comair crash.
After a daylong hearing on Thursday, the NTSB did not include tower staffing among the probable causes of the accident. Instead, it ruled that pilot errors caused the crash that killed 49 people. The pilots tried to take off from the wrong runway, which was too short.
In its official conclusions on the crash, the NTSB stated that, even though the tower manager decided to have only one controller working that night instead of two, "it cannot be determined if this decision contributed to the circumstances of the accident."
Yesterday, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said it plans to file a formal response with the NTSB because the board did not list inadequate controller staffing as either a contributing factor or a problem to fix.
"We would have hoped to see the FAA held directly accountable for not living up to their orders, for putting that controller in an unsafe environment," said Doug Church, spokesman for the controllers association.
The air traffic controllers union and the FAA have been engaged in a nasty labor dispute.
Jim Burnett, a former NTSB chairman, said he also was concerned that the air traffic control system was not listed as a factor, but his reasons differ from those of the controllers association.
"When you have an airport with taxiways closed, with the pattern of traffic disrupted, it would have been a wise policy of the FAA to require visual monitoring of aircraft as a matter of redundancy," said Burnett, now an attorney and transportation safety consultant.
The taxiway that pilots normally used to reach the airport's main runway was closed the day of the crash because of recent construction.
After much debate, the board decided not to list among the official causes of the crash the fact that the controller working that morning was doing administrative work instead of watching the plane take off. However, the NTSB did recommend that the FAA tell controllers not to perform administrative duties when they are responsible for a moving aircraft.
The air controllers association took issue with other items the NTSB discussed Thursday. Some NTSB members said the controller on duty, Christopher Damron, used poor judgment when he decided to do administrative work instead of monitoring the plane.
Church said Damron was doing much more than administrative work. During a period of one minute and 40 seconds when Comair 5191 was holding by Runway 26 -- the shorter runway -- and when it received takeoff clearance, Damron performed seven different tasks, most of them radar-related, Church said.
"Controllers can't do everything all the time," Burnett said. "The idea that a controller all the time can monitor a flight or keep visual contact with them all the time is a bit over the top."
Air controllers say tower understaffed now
Reach Michelle Ku at (859) 231-1335, 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1335.