U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler demanded answers yesterday about inadequate air-traffic controller staffing in Lexington on the day Comair Flight 5191 crashed, but a top federal aviation official said he had none.
Chandler, D-Versailles, was one of several House members to grill Nicholas Sabatini, the Federal Aviation Administration's associate administrator for aviation safety.
Sabatini told the House Subcommittee on Aviation that commercial air travel is safe in the United States despite the Aug. 27 crash that killed 49 people after taking off from Blue Grass Airport. Since 2001, he testified, only 78 airline passengers have died in the United States.
But a new U.S. Government Accountability Office report -- presented at the hearing -- questioned the number of air-traffic controllers available for duty in coming years, a time when thousands of controllers will retire. Chandler wanted to know why only one controller was on duty at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport on the morning of the crash despite an FAA directive mandating two controllers there.
Investigators say the one controller on duty had his back turned as Flight 5191 steered onto the wrong runway, which was too short to provide a safe take-off. It has not been established whether that was a factor in the crash.
"This directive was put in place for a reason, I assume, because you thought it was good policy to have two controllers on that site for safety purposes," Chandler told Sabatini at a hearing on FAA safety programs. "This directive clearly wasn't followed. And what also concerns me is that you didn't know that the directive wasn't being followed until after the crash."
Sabatini replied that the directive should be viewed more as a recommendation.
"It provides latitude to the management to make determinations based on the need at the time," he said, adding that he was not familiar with the decisions behind staffing that morning at Lexington's tower. "I can get back to you with more specifics."
"Has anyone been reprimanded" for the understaffing? Chandler asked.
"I don't have that information, sir," Sabatini replied.
Outside the hearing room, Chandler said he was surprised and frustrated that a top FAA official would be unprepared for questions about his agency's possible role in the worst U.S. air crash in five years.
"This would give you the impression that they're not serious," Chandler said. "These are not hard questions."
Hiring and training
Sabatini denied news reports of potentially dangerous understaffing in control towers around the country. He said the FAA is authorized to employ 14,670 controllers and has about 14,500. Not every commercial airport needs a tower or controllers to direct traffic, he added, and in fact, 145 don't have them.
But the GAO report painted a less rosy picture. Four fatal commercial airline accidents so far in fiscal year 2006, including Lexington's, means the FAA will miss its target of 0.018 fatal accidents per 100,000 departures. The average for the last three years -- which is the traditional measurement -- now stands at 0.023.
The FAA is troubled on several fronts, including a wave of expected retirements among its controllers and safety inspectors, according to the GAO. The FAA estimates it will lose 10,291 controllers in the next decade, or about 70 percent of the total, chiefly due to retirements. So many controllers are reaching retirement age at the same time because President Reagan fired about 10,000 striking controllers in 1981, clearing the ranks.
A related report by the U.S. Transportation Department's acting inspector general, also released at the hearing, noted that FAA officials say they can hire enough new controllers. But they fail to identify the cost of such hiring and training, or how they will pay for it, and they do not specify forthcoming staffing needs among more than 300 FAA-operated towers, according to the report.
The FAA had a couple of champions on the House committee, though, who blasted the news media and the controllers' union for raising questions about inadequate staffing and its possible role in the Lexington crash.
"It was not the FAA's fault," said Rep. Robin Hayes, R-North Carolina. "Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the press has created an incorrect perception of what happened."