Five years after the loss of 49 lives in an avoidable crash in Lexington, air travel is safer because of changes spurred by the tragedy.
We hope that's some solace to the survivors, many of whom gathered this weekend for the dedication of a sculpture memorializing the victims of Comair Flight 5191.
It took almost the full five years since the crash and a change in the White House, but the Federal Aviation Administration this year began requiring at least two air traffic controllers on midnight shifts in airports open 24 hours.
The FAA and controllers also agreed to new science-based recommendations for combating fatigue.
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After recent high-profile examples of sleeping controllers, the plan was ready to roll out because of work begun in response to the Lexington crash. The controllers union had been seeking the two-controllers requirement for years, even before 5191.
Last year, the FAA began requiring pilots to obtain specific clearance before crossing runways. The agency also finished upgrades to runway lighting and markings at airports around the country.
Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board and the lead investigator on the Lexington crash, called the tragedy "a wake-up call for an industry that had gotten complacent on safety." Hersman, who traveled to Lexington for this weekend's ceremony, told reporter Linda Blackford that the crash produced "a recognition in the industry that they had to be better and more vigilant."
Staffing and controller fatigue were among the concerns raised by Hersman after the crash, although the official cause was determined to be pilot error. While violating rules on cockpit chatter the pilots failed to recognize cues that they had taxied onto the wrong runway.
But layers of smaller errors played a role in the deadly outcome.
Because of airport construction, the pilots had an inaccurate airport map. The tower was staffed overnight by a single controller who had worked two eight-hour shifts in a 24-hour period with only a few hours of sleep. He was handling paperwork as the plane headed down a runway too short for a safe takeoff.
The staffing crisis in airport towers worsened in the years after the Comair crash as the Bush administration battled the controllers union. The FAA slashed starting pay for controllers while a wave of retirements depleted the ranks and overtime demands pushed even more veterans into retirement.
The staffing crisis has eased. More than 8,000 controllers have been hired since 2005, and the Obama administration has taken a collaborative approach to working with the union on pay and workload issues.
In Kentucky, the crash drew attention to a legal quirk that deprived surviving spouses of financial damages when negligence causes a spouse's death. That injustice was rectified by a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in an unrelated case.
Widespread remodeling of Blue Grass Airport included a project that eliminates the possibility of a commercial airliner again using the too-short general aviation runway. The project was speeded up because of the crash.
Not all of the recommendations made in the wake of the 5191 crash have been implemented. The FAA, for example, is still dragging its feet on improving cockpit technology that would warn pilots when they are on the wrong runway.
The improvements in air safety might prove tenuous as Congress and the president look to cut federal spending. Mistaking that extra controller on the midnight shift for government fat could have tragic consequences.